Davis Mills executed a crisp play-action fake to running back Rex Burkhead before launching a long spiral into the hands of wide receiver Keke Coutee after he gained a step on safety Lonnie Johnson Jr.
It was arguably the Texans rookie quarterback’s most impressive performance of training camp as the strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford delivered a series of sharp throws Wednesday morning and took much better care of the football than he had previously in several interception-filled practice sessions.
Mills displayed improved command of the offense, confidence and accuracy.
Besides his bomb to Coutee, Mills also found wide receiver Chris Conley for a touchdown pass on the sideline that was ruled down a few yards shy of the end zone. Mills connected with rookie tight end Brevin Jordan in heavy traffic for a first down.
Mills’ worst moment: an interception by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves on an end-zone throw intended for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Overall, though, Mills showed significant progress after a difficult practice earlier in camp when he threw five interceptions in red zone work with one returned for a touchdown by safety and fellow Stanford man Justin Reid.
A former blue-chip recruit from Atlanta, Mills is keeping the ups and downs in perspective.
“Something that always stuck with me is the little quote: It's never as bad as you think it is, and it's never as good as you think it is. I try to keep my head up and just continually improve.
“One of the things I've always tried to pride myself that I'm a confident person, and you kind of have to be as a quarterback. You can't let those little mistakes faze you. The biggest thing on my mind is the next play, and that's the only thing that matters. You have somewhat of freedom because it's early on, but it's a tough business. Obviously, I want to protect the football.”
Although veteran Tyrod Taylor is slated to be the starting quarterback for the Texans, how Mills adapts to the NFL is a major point of emphasis for the Texans as they only have Taylor under a one-year contract and disgruntled and embattled Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson has issued a standing trade request.
“He’s doing a good job,” defensive tackle Vincent Taylor said Wednesday. “He’s just got to keep coming out here and keep doing what he’s doing, doing what the coaches are asking him to do, and it’s going to help the team.”
Signed to a four-year contract worth $5.22 million that includes a $1.157 million signing bonus, Mills had just 11 starts in college due to a knee injury. Playing in just five games last season, he was an honorable-mention All-Pac-12 selection who passed for 1,508 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He set a single-game school record with a 504-yard performance against Washington State. As a sophomore, he passed for 1,960 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Texans coach David Culley said he wants to see more consistency from Mills, but this is largely what the team expected when they drafted him and they’re encouraged by how he has reacted to mistakes and how he has absorbed knowledge from setbacks.
What does that mean?
“That he has the right stuff that a quarterback has to have because there's going to be bad plays,” Culley said. “Not only going to be bad plays, but there will be bad series. He would be a good fit in any offense from the standpoint in this league. We knew when we drafted him what we were getting. He hasn't not shown those things we felt like he was going to be, and he's progressing every day and getting there.”
While Mills learns on the job, he leans on Culley, offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton and his fellow quarterbacks. That includes gaining information from Watson, who led the NFL in passing yardage last season.
“He's helped out a lot with what he's done with me,” Mills said of Watson. “Any questions I have, like the other guys too, he's an open book, and he's taught me a lot.”
Because the Texans have no intentions of rushing Mills onto the field in the regular season, they have time to evaluate him and determine whether he’s their future franchise quarterback or if they should draft one in the first round in the 2022 NFL draft.
Mills’ arm strength, size and classic throwing mechanics are rare and intriguing enough that several NFL general managers and scouts have stated privately he would have likely been a high first-round draft pick next year if he had remained at Stanford for his senior year.
“I think I've done pretty well so far,” Mills said. “ Obviously, there's still a lot to learn. It's a new offense for me. So I'm just trying to study as much as I can, learn from the older guys, and pick up and improve every day.”
Mills has a support system surrounding him, including his sister, Ali Mills, a former University of Houston tennis player who now works in wealth management, and his girlfriend, Tori.
“It's great,” Mills said. “I love the city of Houston from what I've seen so far. Fortunately, my middle sister, the middle sibling, she's lived out here for almost four years. She's kind of shown me around. And my girlfriend moved out here with me as well. Kind of taking on the city as a pair. From what I've seen of it, it's been great.”
When the Texans face the Green Bay Packers in a preseason game Saturday night at Lambeau Field, Mills is expected to play a significant amount of steps. It’s an important milestone in his career.
“I'm just happy if I get to play on Saturday, kind of obviously go out there and show what I can do,” Mills said. “I'll have really talented players around me on the same team that I'm looking forward to going out there and playing with, and I'm looking forward to having a lot of fun.
“Obviously, I had a little rough patch of a couple reps practices where I want to improve on. Obviously, I had some turnovers, but I know protecting the football is the most important thing in the NFL. So, I've got to be better with that. I think I've done well the past week or so improving that.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128