This week 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 lofts 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 walks 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 topped with a pinpoint throw to tight end Dalton Schultz on 3rd-and-8 with 12 seconds remaining inside the 20-yard line.
"For a quarterback, you have to have a short memory. You can’t let one bad play become three bad plays, right? Put that behind you. You’re going to make some bad plays, but as long as it doesn’t matriculate into other bad plays, then I’m fine with that," Ryans said. "To see him and see his resolve, the way he was able to come back, compete, drive the offense down for a touchdown there at the end of practice -- that was pretty cool to see.”
"We'll see where their process goes in training camp and see as the competition continues. We'll see who separates themselves."
Mills, in his third year with the Texans, has started 26 games the last two seasons and went 5-19-1. He's had moments with the starting offense throughout the spring and believes he's 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 is going to change," Mills said. "It's been great getting to know C.J. so far. He's an extremely hard worker, and it will 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 No. 3 overall 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, which 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 only 6% was under center and 86.6% was in shotgun.
“It's a matter of just getting reps. Nothing magical about it. It's just getting under center and doing it. C.J. 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 these past few days in practice of understanding, and we haven't had any issues with that. C.J. is doing 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' pass-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, which he thrived at in college. He used it on 34.9% of his dropbacks and produced a QBR of 87 while throwing 36 touchdowns.
Though Stroud hasn't earned the starting job just yet, he's impressed his teammates throughout the spring.
"I would say [Stroud] a good leader already coming in, vocal, speaking up in meetings, being able to sit with him at times in the quarterback meetings and hearing him ask some great questions, trying to pick apart the offense and grasp it pretty early," wide receiver Robert Woods said. "Out on the field, making some strong throws, good reads, good decisions. That'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 1omes, being with the twos, just getting better. That's what spring is for. Getting the timing down. Learning my receivers, learning Tank [Dell], learning Woods learning how Nico [Collins] runs his routes, learning how [Schultz] run his routes just anybody I can learn from,” Stroud said. “That's what I've been on. It's not about ones and twos right now, just getting better as a whole and getting ready for training camp.”