Childhood friends and top 2 draft picks Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud square off as Panthers host Texans

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — C.J. Stroud hasn’t forgotten the first time he faced off against Bryce Young on the football field as an eighth grader on a rainy afternoon in Fontana, California.

Young’s Inland Empire Ducks defeated Stroud’s Pomona Steelers in an all-star exhibition.

“They killed us terribly,” Stroud said. “He had a really good game. I played terrible.”

On Sunday, Young’s Carolina Panthers will host Stroud’s upstart Houston Texans as this year’s top two NFL draft picks and close friends meet again.

That initial youth middle school game nearly a decade ago was the first of several meetings in the sports arena, as they competed in 7-on-7 football games and on the basketball court on the travel ball circuit. They developed a mutual respect and close friendship along the way, supporting each other at quarterback camps before Young headed off to Alabama and Stroud to Ohio State.

They quietly rooted for one another’s success in college and leaned on each other during the grueling NFL draft process, which ultimately saw Young go No. 1 overall and Stroud second.

“It’s a blessing to have a brother like that to go through the same type of struggle, same type of pressures — things like that,” Stroud said. "We talk a lot about that stuff in the offseason and things like that, so it’s a blessing to have someone like that in my life.”

Young said the fact they went on to become the top two picks is “surreal.”

“There’s never going to be a time that I’m not rooting for C.J., I guess outside of obviously this weekend," Young said with a laugh. "I don’t want to speak for CJ., but I think he feels the same way. We just both want what’s best for each other. We both want each other to be successful.”

So far, Stroud has experienced more success at the NFL level. He has the 10th best quarterback rating in the league with nine touchdown passes and only one interception as the Texans (3-3) appear on their way to respectability.

Young is 0-5 as a starter for the struggling Panthers, and his QB rating is 29th in league.

But both are motivated, competitive and determined to get better.

They still workout together with the same trainers in Southern California during the offseason and regularly compete on the basketball floor.

“Our trainers tell us not to guard each other because we get too competitive,” Stroud said. “It gets crazy. He’ll get me on a day, I’ll get him on the next. It’s very back and forth.”

NO. 3 IS HERE, TOO

While the focus of this game is on Young and Stroud, it also features defensive end Will Anderson, the third overall pick in this year’s draft who played with Young at Alabama.

Like Stroud, Anderson is off to a good start for the improving Texans. Anderson has started each game this season and has 24 tackles, including two for losses, a sack and eight quarterback hits.

Houston general manager Nick Caserio is excited that both the team’s top picks are already contributing.

“Will is a good football player. He was a good football player at Alabama,” Caserio said. “When we drafted both players, we drafted them because they’re good football players. That’s why they’re here. If we didn’t think they were good football players that could help our team, then we would draft other players.”

DELL RETURNS

Houston receiver Tank Dell is expected to return this week after missing the last game with a concussion. The third-round pick from the University of Houston has been one of the team’s top receivers this season. He ranks second on the team with 324 yards receiving and two touchdowns. He has shown a knack for extending plays and has 97 yards after catches.

“Getting Tank back is big for us,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He's made big-time plays every game that he’s been out there. He’s been a consistent guy that we can count on when we need a big play."

NEW MAN IN CHARGE

Panthers coach Frank Reich announced last week he's turning over play-calling duties to coordinator Thomas Brown following an 0-6 start. Brown has never called plays before at the NFL level.

Reich said that was part of a predetermined plan, not a result of the team's record. He said it was his decision, and not owner David Tepper's call.

The Panthers' offense won't look a lot different overall and Brown is still expected to rely heavily on wide receiver Adam Thielen, who's enjoying an outstanding season at age 33.

“Thomas is ready. It’ll be an organic thing,” Reich said. "There’s still gonna be a lot of collaboration. Thomas is gonna be in charge. It’s not gonna be micromanaged. The staff will contribute like they do, but Thomas will be making the play-by-play decisions. What we do as a game-planning process, that will still stay the same as it’s been.”

DEFENSIVE ISSUES

The Panthers defense has allowed 12 — that's right, 12 — touchdowns in the last two games. The Detroit Lions put up 42 points against the Panthers in Week 5 before the Miami Dolphins matched that number in Week 6.

Outside linebacker Frankie Luvu said it's not a scheme problem, but rather an execution one.

Luvu is hoping the bye week has allowed the Panthers to regroup, but the reality is injuries have decimated the secondary. Starting cornerback Jaycee Horn remains on injured reserve, while safety Vonn Bell is likely to miss another game. Defensive back Jeremy Chinn, one of the team's best players a couple of seasons ago, was placed on injured reserve earlier this week.

HALL OF HONOR

The Panthers will induct defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad into the team's Hall of Honor on Sunday. Panthers new owner David Tepper has been more proactive about adding players' names to the stadium wall since purchasing the team from Jerry Richardson in 2018.

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