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Houston Texans betting on Davis Mills to keep climbing in Year 2 at quarterback 

Davis Mills has come a long way since this time a year ago, when his current head coach had trouble getting his name right.

It was early in the offseason, not long after the Houston Texans had selected him in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and Mills heard a voice call out from behind as he walked to a meeting room.

"Hey, Jeff," the voice said.


Mills was familiar with the experience of being called something other than his name -- fans are known to get creative when addressing opposing quarterbacks -- but this particular moment left Mills a little confused, because there was no one named Jeff in the vicinity. Rather than make the moment more awkward, Mills continued walking.

"Hey, Jeff," the voice said again.

This time, Mills stopped and turned. Standing there was Lovie Smith, then the defensive coordinator for the Texans, who had the right man but the wrong name.

"It was an honest mistake," Mills said recently. "Jeff Driskel is another quarterback on the roster, and from the back, we probably look pretty similar. It wasn't too bad. It only happened once."

Wellllllll ...

It actually happened more than once. Smith, promoted to head coach this offseason, admitted as much during a break at the team's voluntary minicamp in late April, chuckling as he reflected on calling his young QB by the wrong name for two weeks.

Smith was so busy trying to get the defense up to speed in 2021, his first season with the Texans, that he was slow to learn the names of the offensive players. But Mills kept grabbing his attention with the throws he was making.

Whether working against projected starters or battling backups, Mills was fearless when fitting passes into tight windows or pushing the ball down the field. He showed enough of the same competitiveness and playmaking ability while starting 11 games as a rookie last season that Smith and the Texans passed on pursuing a veteran quarterback this offseason, opting instead to fully throw their support behind the 23-year-old Mills.

It was a bold decision for a franchise seeking a return to relevancy after consecutive four-win seasons and spoiling the fan base from 2018 to 2020 with some of the league's top quarterback play from Deshaun Watson, who threw for an average of 4,280 yards and 28 touchdowns during that time. Watson, of course, requested a trade in January 2021 and then missed the entire season while embroiled in legal issues stemming from alleged sexual misconduct, before ultimately being dealt to Cleveland this March. (Two grand juries decided not to bring charges against Watson related to the allegations.)

The Texans can't say definitively what they have in Mills, who left Stanford with a year of eligibility remaining, but they are confident he has the mental and physical makeup to be successful. He threw for 2,664 yards and 16 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions, while going 2-9 as the starter in 2021, but over the final five weeks, he was dramatically better than he was early in the year.

"I know we haven't played a game this year, but when it was time for him to step up last year, he did," Smith said. "One of the first positive plays I showed our guys during the voluntary minicamp was him against the Chargers. The guy was awesome. Once you get that type of play from your quarterback, it's a heck of a start."

The Texans appeared to be staggering in that Week 16 game. A 12-point lead was cut to four with just under six minutes to play. Mills didn't blink. He led the offense on a 72-yard drive that culminated with the second of his two touchdown passes, a 13-yard strike to Nico Collins on a slant route, and Houston went on to win, 41-29, securing back-to-back victories for the first time in 20 games.

Mills had down moments, such as a 40-0 loss at Buffalo in Week 4. Mills attempted 21 passes in that game; four were intercepted. He had no touchdowns and just 87 yards passing. Interestingly, that is also the game the Texans point to as an example of why they believe so firmly in Mills. Because he did not allow it to break the confidence of a young player.

Instead, Mills put on a show the following week against New England, completing 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. It was not the first time they had seen him bounce back after a poor outing. Mills was awful during an early practice in training camp, only to put the defense on its heels the following day with a strong showing.

That resilience and resolve are but two reasons Mills expects to take a jump in performance in Year 2.

"The biggest thing is just the comfort level," he said. "I've always been a confident player, so that really wasn't an issue coming in. But now it's just the comfort level with knowing your place and your role on the team. Even more this year, you're walking in to be the guy. There's still competition, but there's that added confidence that the team believes in you -- your teammates, coaches and front office -- to go out there and be yourself and play the best kind of ball. It's exciting. I'm really looking forward to this year."

Veteran wideout Brandin Cooks has noticed a difference in Mills during OTAs, saying: "I just think his leadership and his confidence is really taking control in that huddle. He's not that rookie anymore. He comes in, he knows that's his huddle, and that's what you look for in your quarterback."

One change that could prove to be a significant stepping stone in Mills' development is Pep Hamilton's elevation to offensive coordinator. The quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator last season, Hamilton (who helped running back Stepfan Taylor thrive during his time as offensive coordinator at Stanford in 2011-12, then served in that role with the Colts in 2013-15 before being the associate head coach and quarterbacks coach in Cleveland in 2016) is a strong proponent of building the offense around a dependable running game. There is plenty of room for improvement in that realm in Houston, where the ground attack was non-existent the past two seasons. In 2020, the Texans ranked second-last in the league in yards (1,466), and a year ago, they were last in yards (1,422) and yards per attempt (3.4) and tied for fewest touchdowns.

The Texans are hoping the addition of guard Kenyon Green, a rookie first-round selection, and Marlon Mack, a sixth-year back who ran for 1,091 yards in 2019 with the Colts but has appeared in only six games since rupturing his Achilles in Week 1 two years ago, will help resuscitate the ground game. If that happens, the thinking goes, it will take some of the pressure off Mills and facilitate a faster and steeper climb in performance.

Houston went 2-3 in his final five starts, Weeks 14-18, with Mills avoiding a negative turnover differential in each of the games. Overall, he threw for 1,258 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions during that stretch, with the offense scoring at least 25 points in three of the games. The unit did not score more than 22 in any of his first six starts, from Weeks 3-8, and was held to single digits four times.

"I had a better feel of the offense at the end of the season; everything wasn't the first time I was seeing it, unlike kind of how I got thrown into it to start the year," Mills said. "I had seen some looks before so I was able to react faster and kind of anticipate what we wanted to do as an offense and it allowed me to play fast and not have to think as much."

If Mills is able to raise his game, it's a safe bet that no one will misidentify him, including his coach.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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