Young players stepping up for Texans

Dec 18, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith walks on the field before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Young players stepping up for Texans

Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith noted the young players on the team are continuing to develop and make more plays each week.

All season long, it has been noted that the Houston Texans are a rebuilding team with a lot of young players that need to learn how to make plays in key spots. The confidence to make those plays comes from experience, and those players have gotten most to all the reps in those critical situations.

For most of the season, those players have struggled to make plays consistently, particularly in late-game, key situations. Over the last month, however, that consistency has improved. In Week 16 in Nashville, they succeeded in those late-game, key situations as well. Doing so against a division rival on the road made it even sweeter.

There are bound to be struggles when developing so many young players at once. Lovie Smith explained how they break the season into segments and evaluate them.

“I think you look at how you’re playing during a period of the season. There are different periods, different seasons to a year. There are different periods too, I think. We’re not the same team that we started off as back there. Played a lot of young players, they’ve gotten better. Just figuring out exactly everybody’s role right now. As you look, it’s just not this game carrying over. It’s been a few weeks now where we’ve been playing pretty good football. I think everybody is noticing that. Again, we have two more great opportunities. It’s not like we played a clean, totally perfect game this past week. There are some things that we have to clean up. That’s why I’m anxious to get back on the practice field, going back to that same routine.”

In any season, the year is broken down into segments. The idea being the young players will play better toward the end of the season as they’ve gotten used to the speed and physicality of the NFL game, gaining experience as it relates to league trends along the way. The head coach noted the improvement in his young players.

“We see them getting better. They’ve been getting better, but still, those young player mistakes have continued to happen. But you have to go through the process a little bit too and get to the end of the game and see how they handle it there at the end when the pressure is really on. The pressure was on, and the rookie Jake (Hansen) got the ball out. The pressure’s on, and the rookie Christian Harris. That was a tough (interception). Especially when you can’t feel your fingers to be able to catch that; if he had caught it cleanly, he might have scored with it. Then of course (Jalen) Pitre. That’s the growth of them making plays to finish out a game.”

Developing the young players has always been job one for Houston this year, and the Texans had them in nearly every key position. Some started the year in key positions, and some moved into those situations during the year. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is one of the players who has ascended to his role, and Lovie commended his progress.

“Consistent play starting off with that. Once you get in the starting lineup, you’re expected to play like a starter. He’s been understanding with his play. He has rushed well, rushed the passer well, plays hard, has made plays in the running game too. Just his overall play has been very good. That’s what we’ve seen from him. He practices that way. He’s just enjoying playing football right now.”

Another one of those players is linebacker Jake Hansen, a player Lovie Smith has a bit of history with.

“I know Jake (Hansen) probably as well as anybody on our team. Seen him grown up from there. He’s heard the message that we are giving. Some of the players are hearing it for the first time. He’s heard the message quite a few times, and he buys into it. The winner, if you look at the turnover ratio most weeks, it’s been like that for a long period of time. Some people really buy into that. That was a take-away. The running back had the ball secured. Plays like that can give the team momentum, which it happened for us.”

Davis Mills’ struggles this season have been well documented, but there has been clear improvement in his play since his return to the lineup after being benched. Lovie described his improvements and what he needs to work on next.

“He’s made plays. That’s what we look for from the quarterback position. Looking for him first to protect the ball. It’s always about ball security. We will still work on securing it as a runner. What we needed from our quarterback position, Davis (Mills), at that moment, we needed a drive. He had some clutch passes in tight windows, and he did that right up until that final touchdown pass. So what that shows is growth right there. If you just look at another young player that’s taken steps, he took a step back. ‘Hey, Davis, let’s take a step back.’ He did that, learned some things from that moment, and is making the most of this second opportunity.”

While it may be too late for Mills to show he is worthy of being the starter going forward, his improved play can help improve his trade stock to other teams. If Mills is not going to be the starting quarterback next season, it is expected he will seek a trade. It also wouldn’t make sense to have the backup quarterback being a guy who wants to take the job from the player drafted with the top pick. A veteran quarterback who can impart years of experience on the new quarterback would be more sensible. A solid finish to the season for Mills could help the Texans obtain useful capital in the upcoming draft.

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