Texans turn to Vyncint Smith with Demaryius Thomas out

HOUSTON -- Less than three years ago, Houston Texans receiver Vyncint Smith was working at a car detail shop in South Carolina and idolizing receiver Demaryius Thomas, even using a photo of Thomas as the background on his cell phone.

On Sunday, after Thomas was carted off the field with an Achilles injury, Smith was asked to take on an elevated role in Houston's passing game. With two minutes remaining and the Texans trailing the Philadelphia Eagles 29-23, Smith broke free and made a sliding catch in the back of the end zone on a 35-yard pass from Deshaun Watson for his first career touchdown.

Smith's unlikely heroics nearly helped the Texans (10-5) secure the AFC South division title before the Eagles won 32-30 on a 35-yard field goal. He said Wednesday that his phone has been "on fire" with supportive messages from friends and family, but he wished he had a better touchdown celebration -- maybe something a little more creative than raising both arms.

With Houston placing Thomas on injured reserve Tuesday, Smith could see more opportunities when the Texans play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) for their regular-season finale.

Watson and coach Bill O'Brien both spoke highly of the soft-spoken rookie on Wednesday.

"Vyncint is a guy who has been quiet, and he's a rookie that has learned so much from the guys in that locker room," Watson said. "We've watched him improve each and every week. He hasn't had one complaint. He's just working, being patient and he keeps improving. When his opportunity came Sunday, he took advantage of it and made a big play for us. We knew that whenever his opportunity came, we could trust him."

The Texans signed Smith as an undrafted free agent in the spring, hoping his combination of length and speed could help bolster the Texans' receiving corps around DeAndre Hopkins. The lean 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver out of Division II Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, caught Houston's eye with his 4.36 40-yard dash time.

O'Brien said Wednesday that he takes into account the level of competition when evaluating college players.

"A guy that's played in the SEC for three or four years relative to a guy that -- with all due respect, I love Limestone -- it's just a different level of competition," O'Brien said. "But since the day Vyncint walked in here, he's a very hard-working guy. He takes notes, pays attention, has never missed a practice, works hard, and he's improved because of it."

In spring 2016, Smith walked away from playing football at Limestone and got a job at Details Count Professional Detailing in Columbia, South Carolina. Fortunately for Smith and the Texans, he went back to Limestone.

Now, his hard work and waiting in the shadows are starting to pay off. In the avalanche of notifications on his phone the past few days, messages from his family haven't gotten lost in the fray.

"They're excited and glad to see me making plays," Smith said. "They always believe in me. My dad was like, 'I told you: As soon as you get a chance, you made a play.' It's exciting."

On Sunday, Smith and the Texans will take on the 5-10 Jaguars. Despite its record, Jacksonville's elite pass defense ranks second in the NFL in yards allowed and touchdowns allowed. Although Hopkins has a touchdown catch in three straight games against Jacksonville, he has been held below 100 yards receiving in six straight games and has had a few scrappy showdowns with Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Additionally, Texans slot receiver Keke Coutee remained sidelined for a fourth straight game against Philadelphia with a hamstring injury. Coutee said Wednesday that while he is improving daily, he hasn't been given a timetable for his return.

If the Jaguars can keep Hopkins under wraps with heavy attention, could Smith get another opportunity to make a big play?

"If you're out there on the field with me, I have all the confidence in the world in you," Watson said. "There's not one guy in that locker room that should lack confidence that the ball is going to them. I'm going to find the open guy. But for him, being able to step up in that moment should give him a lot of confidence to know that he can come in and perform."