HOUSTON -- As Andre Johnson lay on his back just out of bounds near the end zone, several teammates wandered over to see how he was. Slowly they retreated back to the middle of the field, but one remained. Johnson's star pupil, DeAndre Hopkins, stood near his mentor as trainers evaluated him.
Then Johnson walked off the field, leaving the game to be evaluated for a concussion, and Hopkins knew exactly what that meant.
"They were probably going to come to me and I was going to be able to make plays for my team," Hopkins said. "I got a couple of man coverages early in the game and I didn't capitalize like I should have, like I wanted to. But I redeemed myself later once Andre went out."
What you saw Sunday afternoon at Reliant Stadium was a rookie growing up in real time. He stood at the podium in the Houston Texans' team auditorium wearing a Picasso-themed T-shirt with the words "torero" and "toro" scrawled on it. Apt attire to follow an artful game. Hopkins had 103 receiving yards after halftime in the Texans' 30-24 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans. He also had the game-winning touchdown catch.
"The young kid is coming into his own," tight end Owen Daniels said.
Sunday afternoon was a demonstration of how far the Texans' receiving corps has come. Keshawn Martin made a contribution, too, with pivotal catch that took the Texans into Titans territory on the game-tying drive. But with Johnson out of the game, Hopkins rose to accomplish what the moment demanded. His 117 receiving yards were the second-highest total in franchise history by a rookie. It was the first time since 2010 that a Texans receiver besides Johnson caught passes for more than 100 yards.
"I feel like I can be better than Andre; that's my mindset," Hopkins said.
It's a confident mindset that's not dissimilar from the kind J.J. Watt has about his potential. It's also a mindset Johnson has encouraged in him. He knows that reaching for greatness is the only way one gets there.
The personalities of Hopkins and Johnson are exactly why they'll succeed together. Johnson wants to train the player who could become the Texans' next great receiver. At this point in his career all that matters to Johnson is strengthening his team enough to win a championship. Hopkins is smart enough that he wants to learn from one of the best to ever play the position.
It will get harder for Hopkins from here as opposing defenses realize the danger he poses. Today he saw man coverages, "a wide receiver's dream," he said.
"I don't expect their respect right now," Hopkins said. "It is my second game in the NFL right now. I've just got to go out there and prove that I deserve it."
His game-ending touchdown might have done it. Well-covered on the right edge of the end zone, Hopkins made the kind of catch you wouldn't expect him to make, unless you knew anything about him. He turned around with Titans cornerback Jason McCourty inches away, reached up and to his right to grab Matt Schaub's pass and had the confidence in his 3X-gloved hands to not worry about bringing the ball into his body as he tapped his feet inbounds.
"The contested plays," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Exactly what you saw today. Contested football plays in the game: he and somebody else going up for jump balls, tight balls. He finds a way to make those plays."
Once everybody else catches on, respect will follow shortly.