What makes C.J. Stroud so uncommonly cool? How Texans QB sets himself apart with rare poise

In high school, there was a day C.J. Stroud had no receivers to throw with. The future Houston Texans quarterback went to a field alone. The teammates who couldn't join him were replaced by visions in his head. The apparitions ran imaginary routes. Then Stroud threw the ball to the empty spaces. Stroud ran to the ball, picked it up and repeated the process.

“How many people in today’s world would do that?” John Beck, a private quarterback coach who has worked with Stroud, told USA TODAY Sports.

When Stroud told Beck the story of that solo session, the director of combine preparation/NFL development at 3DQB – a quarterback training center co-founded by former MLB pitcher Tom House – Beck gained instantaneous insight. It helped reveal how much football mattered to Stroud, his willingness to improve at any cost, and his not caring what anyone who may have watched him that day and wondered, “What the heck is going on?”

What stands out to those who have worked closely with Stroud is his ability to meet the moment. At 22 years old, he already has a track record in doing so. He’ll be in the spotlight at least once more this season, Saturday in the AFC divisional round against the No. 1-seeded Baltimore Ravens. Millions will be watching. Stroud will play like no one is.

Multisport mindset

Taylor Kelly, the coach at 3DQB who primarily works with Stroud, never saw the quarterback play high school basketball in Rancho Cucamonga, California. But they have participated in several pickup games together.

“He’ll pull the trigger as soon as he crosses halfcourt,” Kelly told USA TODAY Sports. “You got to make sure you know where he is.”

On the fast break, Stroud gazes at the hoop. He can also attack the rim.

“But he’s lethal from behind the arc, for sure,” Kelly said.

Stroud has drawn praise for his accuracy on the gridiron. He had the lowest interception rate of any during the regular season (1.0%). In some cases of quarterback play, that could signal an aversion to risky throws. But Stroud has shown over the past two weeks – a win-and-in Week 18 victory against the Indianapolis Colts and rout of the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round – that he’s not afraid to make any throw anywhere, anytime.

However, his skills on the hardwood, Kelly said, translated to his quarterback play. The court is smaller than a football field. The action is condensed. Point guards have to feel the defense and anticipate. Vision is everything.

“I think C.J. took the approach as a kid – maybe he didn’t notice – that he would be very intent and focused on where he was putting that football. I think it comes with playing basketball, to be honest,” Kelly said.

Stroud’s pregame warmup routine has been documented this year. He shoots basketballs and takes dry swings like a baseball player or golfer. Beck said that’s the 3DQB way: leverage the athletic background and infuse it with quarterbacking.

It’s still rare for a first-year player – even one who’s a virtual lock to win Offensive Rookie of the Year – to have that type of poise in the pocket while also being able to deliver balls downfield in tight coverage. The 75-yard touchdown to Nico Collins on a deep pass to open the game against the Colts comes to mind.

“Taking it on the chin like a vet,” Beck said.

'He's the leader we need him to be'

C.J. Stroud #7 of the Houston Texans celebrates after defeating the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs at NRG Stadium on January 13, 2024 in Houston, Texas.
C.J. Stroud #7 of the Houston Texans celebrates after defeating the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs at NRG Stadium on January 13, 2024 in Houston, Texas.

Counting Ohio State’s trip to the College Football Playoff semifinals last year, a 15-game NFL regular season (Stroud missed two games while dealing with a concussion) and now the playoffs, Saturday will mark Stroud's 30th game over the past 16 months.

Stroud finished the 2023 regular season with 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns while ranking second in adjusted yards per pass attempt (8.7) as the Texans won their first AFC South title since 2019.

“He’s built for that, just how he’s been brought up by his family and the resources around him,” Kelly said.

Kelly remained in contact with Stroud throughout the season and offers pointers after watching the game tape. The repeatability and consistency of the quarterback's drops have vastly improved, Kelly said, from season's beginning to now. The two talked about his upper-body posture early in the season. There have been minor footwork adjustments.

Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik have excelled, Kelly said, at having one vision. And Stroud has taken it upon himself to the game through the lens of the play caller, Slowik, who has drawn interest in the head-coaching interview circuit – in no small part due to Stroud’s play – following his first year as a coordinator.

“Trust is everything,” Stroud said. “That’s something Bobby talked about a lot, and we know how important it is.”

Stroud knows what Slowik wants to hit in the passing game and his eyes progress in that manner.

“You don’t see him getting stuck on guys too often,” Kelly said. “That’s probably the biggest jump I’ve consistently seen from Week 1 to now.”

Stroud’s first pro start came in Baltimore in the season opener, a 24-9 loss for the Texans. Stroud was 28-of-44 for 242 passing yards, and the Ravens sacked him five times without allowing a touchdown. Baltimore finished the year as the top-ranked scoring defense (16.5 points per game) and also tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (31).

“We didn’t feel like you were going against a rookie at that point,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said this week about Stroud's premiere. “So, you're just seeing the natural progression over the course of the season just being more comfortable in the system. You can tell the system’s growing around him.”

Looking back at the Ravens game, Houston head coach DeMeco Ryans said he sees the same player. What has changed is Stroud’s demeanor and leadership abilities.

“When we’ve needed it most, I feel like just throughout the entire season, and now in this moment, he’s the leader we need him to be,” Ryans told reporters this week. “He’s the player that we need him to be. His demeanor on the field, off the field, is exactly what you want out of a starting quarterback.”

Stroud's edge comes from within

Following the Texans’ 39-37 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 5, in which Stroud set a rookie record with 470 passing yards and threw five touchdowns, the passer's thoughts were elsewhere.

“What I’ve been battling with is trying to still be a family man, still help out, and still be a football player and do my job,” Stroud said. “It’s been tough.”

Coleridge Stroud III, the quarterback’s father, has been serving a 38-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2016 to carjacking, kidnapping and robbery charges in a drug-related incident.

“He doesn’t like to talk about his past, but he knows his past is part of him,” Beck said.

Stroud has a human side that is different than most because of what he’s experienced, Beck added. There is sincere gratitude – not just for people, but for the fact people such as Beck and Kelly believe in him.

“He just has that good person nature to him, and I think that matters,” Beck said.

To Kelly, Stroud is always smiling. Always joking. Winning over the Houston locker room was not merely a product of his play. Who he is as a person is the difference-maker, Kelly said.

“He cares so much for people. You get that immediately from him. It’s not fake … that kid is as genuine as it gets,” Kelly said.

Faith and family are top of mind for Stroud.

“Once he trusts you,” Kelly said, “he’ll die for you.”

After the Carolina Panthers selected Alabama quarterback Bryce Young first overall in the 2023 draft, Stroud went second to Houston. In the pre-draft process, Stroud scored poorly in the S2 cognition test, per multiple reports. The narrative could have sunk him. It had the opposite effect.

“That stuff motivates him,” said Kelly, who added: “Turn on the tape. The kid can play football. He processes it.”

On the field, the competitive atmosphere unlocks something within Stroud, Beck said. The coach, who also oversees the development of signal-callers such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, said he believed Stroud was at his best on his pro day at Ohio State. He had not much to gain but plenty to lose. With head coaches and general managers from across the league watching, “he lit it up.”

“When you needed him to nail it,” Beck said, “he nailed it.”

Beck mentioned the 2021 Rose Bowl as another example. Stroud, missing some key teammates, led the Buckeyes to a 48-45 victory over Utah. The clutch factor has been on display throughout his first pro season.

“Some people kind of get nervous or tighten up a little bit,” Kelly said. “He thrives in it.”

Stroud has played some big-time football between his Buckeye days and rookie year. But Kelly related Stroud’s excellence to a 3-on-3 run in a random gym.

“He just plays," Kelly said. "He’s not focused on things that don’t matter and the outside noises and what people are saying."

Sounds like someone who would show up to a field with no one to throw with and put himself through a whole workout anyway.

“He’s very confident with who he is," Kelly said, "and he knows who he is.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: C.J. Stroud is no ordinary NFL rookie QB. Why Texans star stands out.