Within split seconds, DeAndre Hopkins elevated, plucked out of the air a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass ziplining toward his outside shoulder and tapped both feet in bounds. Then, his momentum taking him to the ground, he tucked the football inside the goal line.
It was the catch of the day on Sunday — Hopkins beating the defense for six in a simulated two-minute drill — if not of Houston Texans training camp so far.
The kind Hopkins is beginning to make look routine.
Of all the story lines trickling out of the first week of camp, few are as exciting and enticing as Hopkins’ emergence. Injuries kept Andre Johnson and Arian Foster out of their fifth practice each on Sunday. Jadeveon Clowney joined them on the sidelines for the second straight day. As did Jonathan Joseph, who sat out for the first time on Sunday after appearing to make it through Saturday’s practice unscathed. Brain Cushing has yet to practice, and is still on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list following last year’s season-ending knee injury.
In other words: Hopkins seems just the fix, for a team looking to rebound from a 2-14 record last season, and a fan base grasping for hope in advent of a new season.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. He has so much confidence right now, and that’s something you just want to see him continue to build on.”
Hopkins, the 27th overall pick in 2013, caught 52 passes for 802 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first year out of Clemson, finishing with the second-most yards among rookies last season and third-most catches. Johnson said Hopkins only looks hungry for more.
“That’s the thing about him,” Johnson said. “He works hard, he wants to be great, and that’s a great thing to see in a young guy like that.”
With Johnson nursing a hamstring strain, Hopkins has slid into the No. 1 receiver spot in practice and has looked every bit the part. Though the likely No. 2 opposite Johnson, who led the NFL with 176 targets last season, Hopkins has shown the skill to be a primary option if need be. And with O’Brien calling Johnson’s injury “minor” and Johnson saying on Sunday that he hopes to play in the Texans preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night, Fitzpatrick could soon have one of the NFL’s better receiving tandems at his disposal.
“DeAndre’s done a great job,” Fitzpatrick said. “He works hard, comes every day, wants to win. Obviously a guy that wants the ball thrown to him, and if you’re a guy who wants the ball thrown to you, I’ll throw it to you. You catch it, I’ll throw it to you again.”
Though Fitzpatrick said Hopkins isn’t too shy to ask.
“We have plenty of discussions about that,” Fitzpatrick joked. “But he’s also a young guy, and he’s got a great willingness to learn, and he puts his time in, and that’s impressive and a thing you want to see as a quarterback.”
Hopkins success this training camp, he said, is in part due to the change in circumstances for a second-year player. Last offseason, he said, when working to pad his draft stock after catching 82 passes for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns for Clemson, Hopkins had to invest a lot of energy in preparing for the NFL combine, his pro day and workouts for teams.
This offseason, it’s been about what he can do for his team, now that he has one.
“You really don’t have a lot of time just to focus towards training,” he said. “this year, I had a whole offseason just toward training. It was great. I had a lot of structure. I trained in Clemson with a few guys who are in the NFL, so it’s been a good offseason.”
For Hopkins, Fitzpatrick said, taking the next step in his game will be about consistency — incidentally, the very thing that’s defined his breakout training camp.
“Training camp is such a day to day thing, and the NFL is all about consistency, being able to go out every game, to do the right things, to be in the right spot to make the big plays,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’ll have an opportunity to do that this year, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
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