Texans confident in C.J. Stroud as he makes NFL debut

C.J. Stroud will call the plays relayed to his helmet device from offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, break the huddle and scan the defense tonight during a preseason opener against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, marking an important milestone at the launch of his NFL career.

As the Texans’ rookie quarterback runs the first-team offense during his first start, he does so with the knowledge that he has checked boxes at every previous stage besides an actual NFL preseason game. While operating the starting offense exclusively for several days at training camp, Stroud has displayed poise, accuracy, arm strength, composure and a resiliency when he’s made mistakes including a rough three-interception stretch in two days earlier in camp. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist has also shown a thirst for knowledge, quizzing defensive players and coaches about coverage schemes and philosophies.

From winning the starting job at Ohio State as he beat out several blue-chip recruits to replace Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields to matching wits with the eventual national champion Georgia Bulldogs and their ultra-talented defense in a playoff game to how he has handled the competition he’s clearly winning over returning quarterback Davis Mills, nothing has been too big for Stroud at any stage of his football career.

And Stroud’s teammates and coaches expect a confidence and high skill level from the Rancho Cucamonga, California native as he faces the Patriots and venerable coach Bill Belichick.

What the Texans don’t anticipate is a nervous or raw rookie. They’ve watched Stroud deliver pinpoint spirals, including a crisp sideline pass to wide receiver John Metchie III, or unleash well-placed bombs to wide receiver Nico Collins. Now, everyone involves wants to see Stroud’s practice performances translate into a game on the road.

“Just how calm he is,” said Texans wide receiver Noah Brown, a former Ohio State player. " I feel like he’s taken control of the offense, taken control of his reps. He’s seeing hots and sights. Those are things that some rookie quarterbacks struggle with, but he’s picking it up and owning it, and I think I’m excited for him.”

Texans coach DeMeco Ryans has made it clear that Stroud has not yet earned permanent QB1 status, and that this start doesn’t mean he’s won the quarterback competition. Nonetheless, the Texans didn’t draft Stroud second overall to have him watch from the bench behind Mills. If Stroud continues to shine, he’ll be named the starter in due time ahead of the Texans’ regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

How the Texans made the decision to start Stroud was a long, deliberate process-oriented outcome.

“Yeah, we’ve talked about it,” Ryans said. “This has been an ongoing process. There’s no rash decision that was made. This process has been going on for a long time.”

Texans quarterback Case Keenum, a former University of Houston standout and longtime backup, has witnessed firsthand the progression of Stroud. Nothing he’s seen has given him pause. There’s an evident readiness.

Signed to a four-year, $36.3 million contract that includes a $23.3 million signing bonus all paid upfront, Stroud is off to a fast start at training camp.

“There’s a lot of things, man,” Keenum said. “I would say one thing is I’ve been really impressed with his confidence. I say that with practice, training camp practice, in mind here the last couple of weeks. It hasn’t been perfect for many of us. We all want plays back, decisions back, reps back, but some of his best plays came after a mistake.

“I think his confidence, his unwavering mindset of just trying to get better, trying to put the team in the best possible situation, the ball where it needs to go with a lot of pressures, you know? I’ve never been drafted as high as he was. I’ve never been drafted. So, I don’t know some of the pressures that go on there and other things that he’s dealing with, so I’ve been very impressed with his unwavering focus on getting better every day and his confidence in that. So, he’s done a great job.”

The Texans have taken a lot of steps to prepare Stroud for this moment. They have downplayed expectations and not done anything to place undue pressure on the former Buckeyes star.

Stroud, though, could galvanize an offense that was overly dependent on Pro Bowl alternate running back Dameon Pierce a year ago. Mills was intercepted 15 times a year ago with three returned for touchdowns, 17 touchdowns, a 78.8 passer rating and a 3-10-1 record as a starter. He was replaced at one point by journeyman Kyle Allen. Mills has played well, for the most part, at camp. He hasn’t played to Stroud’s level, though.

The Texans have communicated that they want Stroud to earn the starting job and ascend to QB1 status. Nothing has been handed to him.

“It’s been very open conversations, very transparent,” Stroud said. “I don’t want anything given to me. I want to earn everything. .. I thought I’ve been playing pretty well, just trying to build consistency and chemistry with my teammates, and just try to be a great leader. So, those are things I’ve been working on, and I feel like I’ve done a decent job trying to get better every day.”

What Stroud hasn’t done is press. He wasn’t immediately named the starting quarterback the way that the Carolina Panthers did with top overall pick Bryce Young. If that bothers Stroud, it’s not evident in his words or body language. If anything, he’s exactly on the same page with the Texans’ coaching staff. The goal: get him ready to start on the road in the first game of the regular season against the Ravens.

Houston Texans Rookie Minicamp

Photo: Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

“I feel like when you try to have a different mindset, you confuse yourself,” Stroud said. “So for me, I just keep my head down, and I work. Just try to work harder and harder every day, just try to beat that person in myself, trying to beat that negative person and just trying to be the best person I can be on and off the field.”

The way that Stroud performed at Ohio State, the way he earned scholarship offers after excelling in Elite 11 competitions against Young, his friend. It all suggests that he’s ready to take the next step.

“I was a boy then, trying to be a young man, and now I am a young man trying to be a man’s man,” Stroud said. “So I think I’ve stepped in here, and I think I’ve gained the respect of the team just being myself. I haven’t tried anything extra or done anything, and there’s some similarities at Ohio State and some with the Texans now. Honestly, I think ultimately I’m just being myself, and I think everyone’s gravitated toward that, and I think that’s even more important than hopping on the field — just being a leader.”

All Ryans is looking for is for Stroud to run the offense smoothly, limit mistakes and play the way he’s been coached. That’s what he expects from him, and all of the rookies, including first-round defensive end Will Anderson Jr, second-round center Juice Scruggs and third-round wide receiver Tank Dell.

“As C.J. goes out in his first game, as with all our rookies,what do I want to see from those guys? I just want to see those guys not blink,” Ryans said. “I want to see them go out and continue to do what they’ve done in practice, not try to make too many big plays. It’s just about them focusing on their craft and what they’re doing. I want to see guys go out there and not make it too big. I want to see that the game isn’t too big for guys. I want to see guys operate efficiently, guys fly around, have some fun playing the game.”

What has stood out to Ryans more than anything is how passionate Stroud is about learning and his hungry approach to football. Those are rare qualities combined with Stroud’s obvious talent as a strong-armed young passer.

“C.J., the thing that has impressed me the most is his dedication to being as best as he can possibly be,” Ryans said. “What you see about C.J., the work and the preparation that he does when he’s not here. He’s a true football junkie, loves football, always watching football, always asking for extra cutups from our coaches.

“I’m just impressed with the mental part of him and just how much he loves the game of football. When your guy has that much love for the game of football, he has no chance but to continue to get better and improve..He’s just continuing to keep his head down and just grind.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

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