The seeds for the Houston Texans' breakout season, and a potentially bright future, were planted months ago in the days leading up to DeMeco Ryans' debut training camp as head coach.
Back in the late summer, rookie quarterback and No. 2 overall draft pick C.J. Stroud gathered Houston's tight ends and wide receivers for a passing camp in California to build chemistry and set the tone for what was to come.
One of those wide receivers was three-year veteran Nico Collins, who says it was evident from those early workouts that Stroud is special.
"From Day 1 when I met C.J, you could just tell that he had that confidence," Collins told FanBuzz during a wide-ranging phone conversation. "That 'it' factor about him. He was ready to come in and work, and lead, the way an NFL quarterback should."
Collins is in the midst of a breakout campaign of his own, catching 29 passes while setting new career highs with 547 receiving yards and three touchdowns through just the first six games of the 2023 campaign.
The uptick in production for Collins — who enters Week 8 ranked eighth in the NFL in receiving yards — has mirrored both the rapid ascent of his rookie quarterback and the Texans in general. Houston emerges from the bye week 1.5 games behind the Jaguars in the AFC South, with a win over Jacksonville already tucked away for safe keeping.
But that kind of production and those wins don't just manifest from thin air.
Whether it was those grueling training sessions under the California sun during the summer or a Wednesday practice in Houston, Stroud goes the extra mile to ensure he's locked in with his receivers.
"It's the extra work he puts in in the film room," Collins says, adding that it is a defining trait of Stroud. "The extra work he puts in after practice. He stays to get extra reps, or timing down. If something didn't go right with a rep during practice, we stay after to make sure we get that rep after practice. Just to make sure that that mistake doesn't come up during the game.
"There are times when I might feel like I didn't come out of that break good, or we did something wrong. So, we'll stay back and get that rep, get that timing down. It doesn't take long, maybe 10 minutes, to get that rep right. Just to get the feel for it, because on Sunday, you don't want that mistake to come up. We just want to stay loose, have fun, and get it right for Sundays."
There is something special building in Houston, and a special season is gaining momentum for Collins. And as a result under Ryans' guidance, the Texans are suddenly a legitimate threat to make a playoff run with a roster that's building serious momentum and has a serious chance to play spoiler down the stretch.
C.J. Stroud, Nico Collins, Tank Dell Leading Emergent Young Core
Stroud is the star attraction of the Texans' offense and holds the key to the franchise's trajectory.
But the young weapons that general manager Nick Caserio and Ryans have built around their young quarterback have helped make the transition from Ohio State standout to efficiently dominant rookie NFL quarterback a rather seamless one.
Through the first six games of his career, Stroud is 10th in the NFL in passing yards, with 1,660; his nine passing touchdowns are 11th-most in the league; and he's thrown just one interception.
Collins says he isn't surprised that Stroud is leading an assault on the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year race as the face of a Texas-size turnaround for Houston, which won just three games in 2022.
"His quarterback IQ" is what Collins says impresses him most about Stroud. "The way he moves defenders with his eyes, and putting the ball where it needs to be. If he has to fit the ball through a window, he's getting it through that window. He'll try to move the defenders so he can put the ball just right where it needs to be.
"His reads, protecting the football, not turning over the ball, and going through his progressions. He's not forcing anything, and he's only going to get better. Especially as he continues to grow within the game."
Stroud, though, is just one piece of the puzzle.
Collins has elevated his game to new heights, and it is little surprise that he has emerged as Stroud's favorite target.
According to Pro Football Focus, of the 42 times that Stroud has looked in Collins' direction, the young quarterback has a whopping 135.5 passer rating. Arguably more impressive is the fact that Collins has dropped just one pass.
After putting himself through an arduous — and self-critical — offseason, maybe a Collins breakout should have been the expectation all along.
"I was working on my feet," Collins explained of his offseason focus. "Working on my pad-level, my release at the line, because I am a big-frame receiver, I'm 6-foot-4; it is easy for a defensive back to get his hands on my chest at the line. So, my main thing in the offseason was working on my pad level, working on movements to make the DBs feel threatened one way and I go the other way, suddenness at the line of scrimmage, and the top of the route, just becoming a smoother and better overall player.
"I wanted to work on my game from the outside and inside, just trying to be versatile as much as I can, so I can be available for this team this year."
Collins arrived in Houston as the Texans' third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and he showed up with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
Across three seasons as a dynamic threat in the Michigan offense, Collins caught 78 passes for 1,338 yards and 13 touchdowns — a threat to score for the Wolverines whenever the ball was in his hands. But he still slid out of the first two rounds of the draft.
"Yeah, it bothered me [going under the radar]," Collins admitted.
After opting out of the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Collins wound up as the 14th receiver off the board in the draft. The Pinson, Alabama, native credits a strong week at the Senior Bowl in the spring leading up to the draft as helping him get chosen at all.
"That was my time to go out and show scouts what I can do," Collins recalls. "Because, I didn't play that year because of the circumstances going on around the world. My time came during the Senior Bowl down in Mobile, and I could show everyone what I was made of, and what I can do. After that, I went into Combine, and that went great, I crushed it, put up great numbers. I kind of felt that I could go late second-round or early third, based on the fact that I didn't play and a lot of other guys did. I did the best I could to show coaches when I could do.
"But, I'm blessed. I still got picked, even though I didn't play a year. I'm glad the Texans picked me in the third round. Now we're here."
This has been the definition of a breakout season for Collins, who is on pace for the first 1,000-plus-yard season of his career after catching 70 passes 927 yards and three touchdowns through his first two NFL seasons combined.
But, as impressive as Collins has been in 2023, he hasn't been alone turning heads in Stroud's supporting cast.
Rookie Tank Dell, a slightish 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, has had an impact that's been anything but slight.
The outsized impact of the Texans' third-round pick out of the University of Houston has translated beyond the stat sheet, which he's filled up with 19 receptions for 324 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He has emerged as a legitimate deep threat while averaging over 17 yards per reception.
Similar to Stroud, Collins was struck by how quickly and easily Dell hit the ground running.
"It was amazing how quickly Tank picked up the playbook," Collins said of his fellow receiver. "He picked up the offense real quick. He's agile, he's quick. He can catch. The way he comes at the ball, and the way he attacks the game of football is impressive to witness in person. He's a special talent. He's only going to get better."
Almost shockingly, the Texans boast the league's 12th-most efficient offense, averaging 347.3 total yards per game. And only seven teams on the AFC side of the ledger are averaging more than Houston's 22.5 points per game.
Perhaps, given the transformational impact Ryans was able to make as the San Francisco 49ers' defensive coordinator, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a commitment to fundamentals is fueling an offensive renaissance in the Bayou City.
What Makes DeMeco Ryans Houston's Culture Driver
There's a reason that Ryans was the most coveted candidate of the 2023 hiring cycle.
Under his tutelage, the 49ers became one of the most feared defenses in the entire league. While it's true that the 49ers boast elite talent at all three levels of the defense — including All-Pros Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga, among others — San Francisco embodied the attitude and competitive culture of its play-caller.
Likewise, there's a reason that Ryans was destined for this job as his first head coaching opportunity.
"That's a coach who's been there, done that," Collins explains. "He's sat in our chairs. He knows what it takes to win. He was a captain of the Texans; he knows exactly what it takes to win and lead a team.
"The way he goes about his details, he harps on the small details, finishing in practice, putting that extra effort in and even straining a little bit, so on Sunday it's easy, you're out there having fun."
That detail-oriented approach speaks volumes — especially coming from a 39-year-old head coach leading a young team chock-full of players who grew up watching him forge a dominant career as the heartbeat of the franchise they're now playing for.
"We can relate to him," Collins says "He's not just out there giving a fake motivational speech just to get us riled up and ready. When DeMeco gives that speech, it feels like he's taking the field with us.
"It's just a difference you can feel from him. He's a young coach, so I feel like that makes him more relatable. He's got the proof. He's been there, he's done it, he's led teams. So, he knows how to lead us, and we follow. We continue to just do what he says and ball out. You can feel the energy he brings, and you have no choice but to buy in to what he's preaching about."
As the season rounds into the second-half, Houston could be knocking on the door of the franchise's first playoff berth since 2019.
Facing the third-easiest remaining schedule in the league, Ryans' Texans have the potential to crash the playoff party long before many expected them to and have the talent to, at minimum, ruin the day for other contenders throughout the conference.
It is just as evident that Stroud, Collins and the Texans are ahead of schedule as it is that the same culture that powered the 49ers to a Super Bowl — along with a pair of NFC Championship Game appearances during Ryans' time on coach Kyle Shanahan's staff — is already taking root. It's evident that Ryans' team is already taking on the attitude and mentality of its coach.
"DeMeco wants you to finish," Collins says. "And take that extra rep that's going to hurt. Because, it's all about getting ready for Sunday. He pushes everybody. You can feel his enthusiasm and his energy. He really wants you to go all out, and have fun doing it.
"I feel like we see enough that we feel his energy and make sure to do what he asks. I feel like we're all going to continue to build and grow together as a team. We want to keep proving people wrong."
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