Texans make it official: C.J. Stroud is QB1 'Definitely earned'

NEW ORLEANS -- C.J. Stroud smoothly delivered the football after executing a slick play-action fake to running back Dameon Pierce that froze the New Orleans Saints’ defense, lobbing a spiral to wide receiver Nico Collins in the end zone for his first NFL touchdown pass. 

For the Texans’ rookie quarterback, it was a heady night of milestones reached. Not only did the second overall pick and two-time Heisman Trophy finalist from Ohio State throw his first touchdown, the California native also was officially named the starting quarterback Saturday night by coach DeMeco Ryans following a private conversation. Stroud displayed accuracy, poise and a sound knowledge of the thick playbook designed by offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik.

“You got to keep working, it was definitely a blessing,” Stroud said at the Caesars Superdome. “It’s something I think I worked for and definitely earned. At the same time, nothing else really changes. Still going to work like the way I’m working, but I have to keep working even more now, so blessed enough to be a starter so young in this league, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. But I know the coaches have trust and faith in me, so I’m going to go out there and do my best.

“Every day in practice, I pushed myself to not just get away with the easy things and try to push myself and try to make the hard throws, make the hard protection calls. I think just being myself is all I need. I don’t have to be anything or anybody else. I can just be myself and be comfortable in my shoes and comfortable in my skin. I’m on the same page with Bobby. Just being myself.”

Stroud ascending to QB1 status has been an anticlimactic outcome really since he was drafted in the first round, but especially as he started all three preseason games, exclusively ran the first-team offense ahead of backup Davis Mills in practice and made strides in the past two games. He threw no interceptions in the final two preseason games against the Saints and Miami Dolphins after being intercepted in a rough NFL debut against the New England Patriots.

Stroud completed 11 of 18 passes for 89 yards with one touchdown and one interception in three preseason games and a total of eight series.

“C.J. will be our Week 1 starter,” Ryans said. “It’s been over the course of the entire process of OTAs, training camp, preseason games and seeing the complete product and knowing C.J.’s desire to continue to get better. We know we’re not where we need to be as a team overall. We all have to continue to get better, C.J. just along with all our other guys know we have to get better in that regard.”

“I thought he did a really good job tonight. He continues to progress, had a good week last week against Miami and came back out this week, ball placement was very nice. He can’t do that without the offensive line up front. He had time to make those throws.

The Texans, unlike the Carolina Panthers with Bryce Young, the top overall pick, and the Indianapolis Colts with Anthony Richardson, had yet to name their rookie quarterback as the starter until Saturday night. The Texans were the last team in the NFL to officially name their starting quarterback.

“We’ll see,” Stroud said when asked how ready he feels for the regular season and facing defenses like the Ravens. “It’s not really something I can answer right away. I got to go out there and practice this week and get ready for Baltimore and work really, really hard to try to better myself and be the best I can when it’s time to line up against those guys. I’m really excited to do that. I don’t know if I’m ready or not, but God willing I will be. I think I am.

“It’s something about football Everything happens naturally. You’re either going to play good or you’re not. The locker room is where you really bond and the brotherhood and the things that really mean something to me happens. I just came in and was myself and I think guys gravitated toward me. We did some group bonding. That’s what makes football special.”

Stroud completed 2 of 4 passes for 16 yards with no interceptions for a 100.0 passer rating. He nearly completed a long pass to Collins along the sideline before the touchdown, but he couldn’t secure the football as Alontae Taylor applied coverage.

“We kind of expected he would come in, being the No. 1 pick, and come out and perform like that,” said Collins, who has developed chemistry with Stroud as his favorite target in practices and games. “Most definitely, we can’t wait for the season to start. Dropping dimes.”

When Stroud smoothly rolled out on a bootleg and delivered a perfectly placed spiral to wide receiver Noah Brown for a sideline completion and first down a week ago, it signaled more than just another nice play.

The strike from the California native against the Dolphins displayed one of his top qualities as a quarterback: accuracy.

Stroud can make throws other passers aren’t capable of. That’s what sets him apart. And it’s one of the reasons why he was so successful for the Buckeyes as one of the most accurate quarterbacks in college football.

That ability to place the football exactly where it has to be is a special trait. And how Stroud did that against the Dolphins on his connection to Brown is a textbook example of making a winning throw. Another sterling example: his completion to Robert Woods for another first down as one of five consecutive completions after a rough start that included a delay of game penalty.

“Does the ball go exactly where he wants it to go? In C.J.’s case, it usually does,” Slowik said. “Something as little as if we’re sitting down on an over route and the ball is at our chest compared to at our facemask, in the NFL, that’s a big difference.

“I would say even the throw he had to Noah on the third down, where he spun out of the pocket in that last game, I thought that was an excellent throw. He kept it low in case there were any traffic issues, the guys showing up and it was still catchable. They were pinpoint throws.”

In college, Stroud went 21-4 in two seasons as the starter as he completed 69.3 percent of his throws for 8,123 yards, 85 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a 187.2 passer rating.

“The ability to see things before they’re happening, to anticipate, that’s something that I pride myself on is putting the ball where it needs to be and having my receivers do little to no work to catch it,” Stroud said. “Most of that comes with timing and chemistry. Just trying to build that lately.

“I feel like every day, every week, we’re making strides. Progress from (organized team activities) to now is night and day. I think that they’ve done a great job of putting a lot on my plate early so I can be comfortable. I’m making a lot of great strides. It’s a million-step journey.”

After completing 2 of 4 passes for 13 yards with one interception as he stared down rookie wide receiver Tank Dell and threw it far too late against the Patriots, Stroud rebounded strongly against the Dolphins. In a 28-3 loss, he was a bright spot along with rookie defensive end and fellow first-round draft pick Will Anderson Jr. Stroud completed 7 of 12 passes for 60 yards. Most importantly, he took care of the football.

“Yeah, it was definitely steps,” Slowik said. “You could see the body still was moving fast. The mind definitely slowed down compared to the first game, which is what you need to have at the quarterback position. He was able to go through his reads, go through his progressions. He still had an aggressive mindset, which we want at that position.

“He was reading, seeing the field well. He commanded the huddle well. It was definitely a step in the right direction. As always, in the preseason, there’s stuff we have to fix, there’s stuff we have to clean up, but significantly improved. Even just mentally.”

For the Texans coaching staff, what has stood out about Stroud is how he makes consistently impressive throws. Although he’s still a work in progress, they can see a lot of signs about his ability and skills.

That includes defensive coordinator Matt Burke accounting for Stroud in practice.

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“He’s a very accurate passer, the ball goes where he wants it to go,” Burke said after listening to Slowik discuss Stroud. The nuances just showing up of, ‘Is it placed here versus here? It’s literally the difference between putting the ball on a chest and putting the ball on a shoulder, which sort of leads that runner away from wherever the pressure is coming from.

“Our job on defense is to try to tighten up those windows as much as possible. It’s always frustrating if you feel like you’re executing a call and you’re in good coverage and everyone is tight and that play is still made. He’s done a really good job of making some throws. There’s a couple in practice where you’re just scratching your head like, ‘Man, can’t do much about that.’”

The accuracy is something Stroud has worked diligently on since the first time he picked up a football.

“A lot of it is kind of where I was naturally talented at it, I always had touch,” Stroud said. “I always use drills. I just try to push myself in weird ways that people probably think is crazy, but it’s been what I’ve been doing since I was a baby.”

It was always a matter of time before Stroud is officially named as the starter. Stroud is patiently waiting, and staying focused on his daily responsibilities.

“I ain’t tripping, just do what’s on my plate,” Stroud said days before the Saints game. “I’m not worried about anybody else’s plate. I’ve got to focus on what we’ve got going on in this locker room. And just getting better every day. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about competing every day and just getting better. That’s not my job. My job is to go out there and play. I’ve got the fun stuff to do.”

Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson likes what he’s seeing from the second overall pick from Ohio State. Especially the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist’s demeanor and reaction to mistakes.

“Absolutely, he’s a super mature kid,” Johnson told KPRC 2 after the Patriots game. “He has a great foundation. He played a lot of big-time football in college, and it doesn’t seem too big for him.”

Slowik emphasized that the Texans simply want to see continual growth from Stroud. They want him to keep progressing in every facet of the position.

“Keep the mind at a constant state,” Slowik said. “We don’t want a lot of fluctuations, and that’s kind of what I referenced when I said his mind is slowing down and the defensive players slow down and the field just becomes clearer.

“That really happened to him after about play five or play six in this last game. He was able to see and articulate everything that happened on the field immediately after and was very aware, and usually that’s a very big indicator of, ‘Oh, the game has slowed down for him. And the more constant we have that, the more he can put his skills to use.”

How Stroud performed against the Dolphins marked a major departure from how Stroud struggled in his NFL debut. It also showed why the Texans ultimately named him their official starting quarterback.

“The sky is the limit for him,” running back Dameon Pierce said. “He earned it. He came in to work since Day 1. You kind of knew it. He was a top pick in the draft, so he came in and did his job. He lived up to all the hype. Great kid off the field, even better player on the field. He’s a great leader and I’m excited for him.”

This was clearly an encouraging performance for the Texans, especially with the defense unable to stop the Dolphins’ running game and the offense having a sputtering ground attack. It was a solid, albeit unspectacular outing for Stroud, but it’s a foundation he can build on.

“I’m on a million-step journey,” Stroud said. “I’ve got to keep going, accept my faults and keep growing.”

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

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Photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

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