July 28, 2006
Camp Kubiak’s Kickoff
by Keith Weiland
After what seemed like the longest offseason in Houston’s pro football history, the refurbished Texans, under the direction of new head coach Gary Kubiak, finally took the field Friday morning for their first training camp workout.
And what a fresh start it was this morning. Gone is the stuffiness of former head coach Dom Capers, as his all-business and emotion-lacking practices are a thing of the past. When the players took the field for their stretching, guys seemed to be having a little fun. Imagine that? Fun playing football?
Of course, the fun didn’t last long – more on that nice Houston heat in a bit – but Camp Kubiak found a way to get the business of football done with a little passion for the game to go with it.
It’s a Stretch
Yeah, I’m going to write about the stretching, but for a good reason, so bear with me. After some walkthrus to start the practice, the players went about their stretching pretty much as they did under Capers with one noteworthy exception. Kubiak has installed stretch leaders; that is, guys chosen by position group to stand at the front of the team.
Simple enough, but what is telling here is Kubiak’s coaching style. He is helping to define the players he wants other players to emulate, establishing role models that best suit the development of his team. Capers was less direct about establishing these leaders. Sure, the Texans were a young expansion team during most of his tenure, but his units had been seeded with capable veterans.
While on the surface, the role of stretch leader may be about as meaningful as that of an elementary school hall monitor, it does more clearly define the roles within a team, and it might prevent some the mutinous feelings that quietly bubbled over during Capers’ time in Houston.
For the record, the leaders for this morning’s practice were DT Seth Payne, DB Jason Simmons, CB Dunta Robinson, LB Sam Cowart, TE Mark Bruener, WR Eric Moulds, FB Jameel Cook, OT Zach Wiegert, and of course, QB David Carr, who was the subject of my previous article brushing this topic of player leadership.
Say, Any of You Boys Smithies?
One of the many noticeable changes from Kubiak’s first training camp practice is the vocal presence of a defensive coordinator. After abandoning the 3-4 scheme in favor of the 4-3, onetime Oilers coach Richard Smith arrived back in Houston with little more to work with than spare parts and broken hearts. If Friday’s practice is any indication, Smith has the physical desire to reassemble those odd-fitting pieces and the passion for coaching to mend those wounded hearts.
The difference is refreshing. Under Capers, former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was a difficult man to notice from the stands. Maybe he blended in with the practice field grass, I’m not sure. Maybe he’s still there and we can’t see him, I don’t know. I do know that the renovated Texans defense is decidedly Smith’s domain.
Originally hoped to be the team’s co-defensive coordinator in charge of linebackers, Smith assumed sole possession of the position after Kubiak had been unable to pry Frank Bush from the Cardinals. Maybe that will turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Smith isn’t quite the tornado of fury from his days coaching special teams with the Oilers, but he still made his presence felt quite literally all over the field Friday morning. With Kubiak a field away working with the offense, Smith took charge over all aspects of the defense, one that will apparently showcase a very aggressive defensive line. Here’s hoping Smith’s fuel for the game becomes contagious.
I Heart Coach Joe
Speaking of coaches… which by the way, the assistant coaches are the most fun to watch during these practices since fans typically don’t see them work their magic as much during the games. That is unless your name is Joe Marciano and television cameras catch you running stride-for-stride with Jerome Mathis on a punt return for a touchdown.
Well, Coach Joe was at it again this morning, and thank goodness. During punt practice, Aaron Halterman recovered a blocked punt attempt off the foot of reserve punter Filip Filipovic. Halterman gloriously ran it back to the endzone for a touchdown. Trailing not two steps behind was ol’ Coach Joe. Nevermind that Halterman had a 10-yard head start when the play began, as both celebrated the morning’s most exciting play.
One more coach story, then I’ll move on, I promise. Kubiak’s best hire this offseason might have been that of assistant head coach Mike Sherman. Coming off a long-term gig as the head coach of the Packers, Sherman not only had to take a step down professionally in becoming an assistant with the worst team in the league from last season, but he had the most arduous task perhaps ever assigned to him: fixing what has arguably been the worst offensive line in league history over a four-year period.
One might think that a coach with his credentials would just be laying low with the Texans for a year until the next head coaching opportunity became available. While Sherman is likely to be a candidate for such a job at some point, let’s be clear that he’s taking his job with the Texans most seriously.
Good thing, because there’s a lot to teach the line as it learns a whole new version of the zone blocking scheme. Sherman isn’t the passive type when it comes to working with his players, in particular his tackles Seth Wand and the two rookies, Charles Spencer and Eric Winston. The reclamation of Wand won’t be an easy one. As evidenced this morning, the tackles are still learning, but I find Sherman’s presence with them after every snap reassuring, opposed to, ummm say… that of the grim reaper of a the last two seasons, Joe Pendry.
Sherman also wasn’t a wallflower when it came time to discipline the previously unassailable Chester Pitts for blowing an assignment. ”GOSH DANGIT!!” Yes, he yelled just that, just before subbing Fred Weary into the first team for Pitts. To his credit, Pitts knew he screwed up and seemed to be upset with himself, not Sherman. Five or six plays later, Pitts returned to the first unit and looked like he could block an ox.
As assistant coach, Sherman isn’t limited to tutoring the offensive line, either. I found him chatting up Carr on occasion as well. One can only hope that Sherman is telling him how Brett Favre might be doing things if he were here in Houston.
It’s Hot in Texas
More than a few of the players were struggling to make it through their first training camp practice in Houston. Newsflash to Eric Moulds: This ain’t Buffalo. Sadly, Moulds didn’t even make it halfway through practice before retiring due to heat exhaustion. Spencer, the rookie from Pittsburgh, also left the field before the final gun for what seemed to be similar reasons.
Credit Kubiak though for allowing the players to work in shorts in the morning, and in most cases, under the protection of the practice bubble in the afternoons. He has also made life a bit easier on the veterans, allowing them to live beyond the team’s hotel if they choose to do so. In some cases, he is lightening their practice load on two-a-days as well. Don’t worry, Kubiak hasn’t gone crazy from the heat. Aside from making friends with the veterans, his new age coaching philosophies will likely be rewarded with a fresher team once camp ends.
For the record, here are some of the operational depth charts as the Texans opened training camp. On the offensive line, from left to right, the first unit consisted of Wand, Pitts, Mike Flanagan, Steve McKinney, and Wiegert, and the second unit included Spencer, Weary, Drew Hodgdon, Brad Bedell, and Eric Winston. The rest of the linemen subbed intermittently, but the third group usually consisted of Spencer, David Loverne, Chris Watton, Mike Bisiel, and Ephraim Salaam.
The defensive line’s first unit included ends Mario Williams and Jason Babin, and tackles Anthony Weaver and Seth Payne. Robaire Smith subbed for Payne into the first unit often. Second-year player Travis Johnson was decidedly fourth behind the top three tackles, followed by Alfred Malone. Antwan Peek and N.D. Kalu played mostly with the second unit, followed by reserves Earl Cochran, Jeff Charleston, and Devarick Scandrett.
At linebacker, Sam Cowart resumed his role in the middle, flanked by Shantee Orr on the strongside and Morlon Greenwood on the weakside. Orr is likely holding the space while Kailee Wong recovers. When the second unit played, Wali Rainer manned the middle, with Charlie Anderson at the strongside and rookie DeMeco Ryans at weakside.
Rainer was particularly entertaining to watch. With his jersey tied up to reveal his toned midsection — a look only Corey Bradford would have loved — Rainer showed off some surprising range and a pair of soft hands in pass coverage drills. And Ryans, who likely will see more reps in the middle during the second of the two-a-day workouts, displayed his agility and some quick, explosive hands.
Among the cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson and Demarcus Faggins were starting, with Phillip Buchanon operating as the nickel. Right now, Lewis Sanders has the edge on Chris McKenzie for the fourth corner, but consider that to be a good battle to watch as camp progresses. At safety, C.C. Brown and Glenn Earl led the way, followed by the pairing of Michael Stone and Jason Simmons.
Among the wide receivers, Andre Johnson and Moulds started, followed by Kevin Walter, who saw plenty of action with the first unit once Moulds left the field. Playing behind them were Derrick Lewis and Jake Schifino. What, no love for Derick Armstrong? He played, but he must not be favored by the new staff. Oh, and this just in: rookie David Anderson is short (5’9”). He, along with Donovan Morgan and Richie Ross played with the third unit. Jerome Mathis was on crutches, as he is likely to start the season on the physically unable to perform list, and Kendrick Starling was still hobbled by an injury he suffered while playing in NFL Europe earlier this offseason.
Other Random Notes
Mario Williams was a media favorite once the practice ended. He was swarmed following what seemed like a decent workout. Wiegert did well to contain his rushes most of the morning, but I predict Williams’ physical ability will become more apparent as camp progresses… Buchanon was the primary option when it came to fielding punts, but Robinson seemed to be next choice. That deserves a "Yikes!" in my book. Wali Lundy also fielded punts. There was no kick return practice this morning… RB Domanick Davis participated in the entire workout, though he will likely sit out the evening practice as a precaution. Davis ran well, finding his holes, making the one cut, then turning upfield… Rookie RB Damien Rhodes made perhaps the worst mistake of the day when he fumbled during 9-on-7 scrimmaging… Hooray! Andre Johnson is catching the ball in stride, running plenty of slant patterns… Bennie Joppru Watch: Well, he made it through his first day of training camp. Peek abused him though when he tried to block. Then later, Joppru made a nice catch downfield, but his shorts slipped past one of his butt cheeks in the process. There is no dignity in football!