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HOUSTON – On a sweltering Wednesday in June at Houston Texans’ Training Center, all focus is on No. 2 pick quarterback CJ Stroud during day two of mandatory minicamp.
This week, it was Stroud’s turn to run with the starters, as both quarterbacks have rotated with the first-team offense throughout the spring. Coach DeMeco Ryans is letting the quarterback competition between Stroud and Davis Mills brew into training camp.
Midway through practice, Stroud throws a pass into the flat during an 11-on-11 drill, and safety Eric Murray intercepts the throw and turns it into a touchdown. Stroud goes to the side to chat with his coaches and teammates.
With his mistake behind him, Stroud turns to the next series, a two-minute drill. He leads a touchdown drive capped with a pinpoint throw to tight end Dalton Schultz on 3rd-and-8 with 12 seconds left inside the 20-yard line.
“For a quarterback, you’ve got to have a short memory. You can’t let one bad play turn into three bad plays, right? Put it behind you. You’re going to make some bad plays, but as long as ‘If I don’t matriculate to other bad games, I’m fine with that,” Ryans said. “Watching him and seeing his determination, the way he was able to come back, compete, run the offense down to get a touchdown there at the end of practice — it was pretty cool to see.”
“We’ll see where their process goes in training camp and see how the competition continues. We’ll see who separates themselves.”
Mills, in his third year with the Texans, has started 26 games the past two seasons and went 5-19-1. He has had moments with the starting offense throughout the spring and believes he is firmly in the mix.
“I’m competing for that starting job. Since I’ve been drafted in the NFL, I’ve been in a competition. I don’t think anything’s going to change,” Mills said. “It’s been great getting to know CJ so far. He’s an extremely hard worker and it’s going to be good to see how we go out there every day and make each other better.”
For Stroud, competing for the starting quarterback spot is nothing new. Before becoming a two-time Heisman finalist in college, Ohio State signed Quinn Ewers, the overall No. 3 player in ESPN’s 2021 high school recruiting database, forcing Stroud to earn the starting job.
“This team has been very accepting of me, very honest and very transparent. What I love about it, man, nothing has been given to me,” Stroud said. “I have to earn everything I love. It’s been like that my whole career.”
Stroud has looked comfortable playing under center, something he wasn’t asked to do often at Ohio State, where just 6% was under center and 86.6% was in the shotgun.
“It’s a matter of just getting reps. Nothing magical about it. It’s just get under the middle and do it. CJ had reps under center in college. It’s not foreign to him,” Ryans said. “He’s done it before. He’s done a good job the last few days in practice of understanding and we’ve had no problems with that. CJ does a great job.”
Operating under center is important when playing under new Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik. He spent the 2022 season as the San Francisco 49ers’ passing game coordinator and will run a version of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which ran 39.5% of their offensive plays under center (10th highest) in 2022.
Stroud has also looked comfortable running play-action in practice, something he thrived on in college. He used it on 34.9% of his dropbacks and produced a QBR of 87 while throwing 36 touchdowns.
Although Stroud hasn’t earned the starting job yet, he has impressed his teammates throughout the spring.
“I want to say [Stroud] a good leader already coming in, vocal, speaking in meetings, being able to sit with him at times in the quarterback meetings and hear him ask some good questions, trying to pick apart the offense and understand it pretty early on,” wide receiver Robert Woods said, “Out on the field, making some strong throws, good reads, good decisions. It’s really a good thing to start with a rookie quarterback coming in.”
But for now, Stroud isn’t worried about the starting role.
“For me, I’m trying to get better. It’s not about being with the 1’s, being with the 2’s, just getting better. That’s what spring is for. Getting the timing down. Teaching my receivers, teaching Tank [Dell]to teach Woods to learn how Nico [Collins] runs his routes and learns how [Schultz] run his routes, just who I can learn from,” Stroud said. “That’s what I’ve been on. It’s not about the ones and twos right now, just getting better as a whole and getting ready for training camp.”