August 3, 2007
Jake and the Fast Man
by Keith Weiland
With apologies to Dan LaFontaine…
In a world where everything is uncertain, one young kick returner finds a way to keep on running. His name is Jerome Mathis, and after running all the way from a small school with big dreams, tragedy struck when hamstrings tightened. But now, with his legs running again, he’s ready for a once-in-a-lifetime comeback.
Payback. This time, it’s for real.
Jerome Mathis might not receive top billing on our training camp playbills, but what he’s done through this first full week of workouts is something of a blockbusting showstopper of a performance. He’s made it through healthy, and he’s looked good doing it.
Jerome Mathis… this is not your older brother’s Corey Bradford.
You know he can return kicks. He fielded just one kickoff during Thursday’s evening workout and was done. No sense in proving what he already can do there. It’s the things he’s doing as a wide receiver though that are enough to make one think that maybe, just maybe, this once askew talent has finally found the road to redemption.
But is it for real this time? Or is this preseason trailer just a tease for a matinee letdown?
Mathis, who along with rookie Jacoby Jones, is seeing a prime opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the coaching staff in light of minor injuries to a couple players ahead of him on the depth chart, namely veterans Keenan McCardell and Andre Davis. Both young players are running good routes and making tough grabs in the absences of the older guys.
Before camp opened, many speculated whether this was going to be Mathis’ last chance to stick on the roster. Amazing, given he was an All-Pro returner as a rookie, averaging an astounding 28.6 yards on his 54 returns. Even though he struggled with injuries during his sophomore campaign last season, when Mathis finally did make it onto the field, he was nothing short of electric once again, albeit more like one of those quick-burning fuses.
But it was his promise of translating that firecracker ability to his job as a receiver that never seemed to materialize into a full-blown ray of light. With the kind of performances he has had catching the ball in camp this week, it might not take too long though before he catches on with better favor from his coaches.
As for Jones, he is maybe the one player who might slow Mathis down though, aside from Mathis himself, of course. Jones, in his first training camp experience, is playing like a veteran and constantly finding ways to get open. Over his camping weekend, Jones was making smart plays and sure-handed grabs against third string competition. On Thursday, he continued making those smart plays and sure-handed grabs against first- and second-string competition.
This is a young player who just "gets it”, whatever "it" is, plain and simple. Yes, he’s kinda fast (4.5-ish forty time) and a little tall at 6’3”, but his play has little to do with anything that can be measured. Jones is catching the ball high and low (and was doing so along with teammate Bethel Johnson before practice with a Juggs machine), and he has been running productive routes up the middle of the field and down the sideline.
Both Jones and Mathis are behind Kevin Walter, who was awarded the #2 receiver job by head coach Gary Kubiak earlier this year. Walter has done little to lose the job; his solid play and soft hands will be an asset to the offense.
Mathis and Jones, however, have an upside that Walter maybe does not. Both though still have to keep proving what they have shown through the camp’s first week: health for Mathis and wisdom for Jones.
Brandon, Brandon, Brandon!
Future mothers of America, I have just one small request: Please quit naming your newborns Brandon. At least don’t do it if you think it will help their chances of getting noticed by the Texans scouting department.
Maybe it does seem like it might help, as the team added three rookies with the aforementioned first name this offseason, including safeties Brandon Harrison and Brandon Mitchell as well as left tackle Brandon Frye.
The two safeties, both of whom missed on-field training opportunities given their schools’ graduation dates, saw quite a bit of time on the field together Thursday night. In watching them I couldn’t help but wonder if they might one day soon make up the team’s defensive backfield along with another big rookie, corner Fred Bennett, who has also contined to play well.
Harrison, the fifth round pick, is more of a strong safety type with brains (Stanford alum was in the Honor Society in high school) to go with his brawn (6’2” and a tough 227 pounds). His body probably says “linebacker”, but his brain ought to tell him he’s better off playing strong safety.
For Mitchell, being an undrafted free agent (UDFA) is just the latest hurdle he’s had to overcome. A walk-on at Ohio State, he earned his right to play after spending time with the scout team and as a redshirt. But he turned his little chances into an NFL job. In practice, his footwork is clean like a tall corner, and as a free safety, he hasn’t shied from contact, even in no-contact drills. Think of him like a newer, better Marcus Coleman, right down the #42 on his jersey.
The third Brandon, left tackle Frye, suffered an ankle injury on Saturday and has yet to return to the field. A pity. He is a raw but very promising prospect who needs these repetitions that the first week of camp provides.
The Texans need the depth at Frye’s position this year in a bad, bad way as well. Starter Charles Spencer seems unlikely to play this season with his mended leg, and while his top replacement, Ephraim Salaam, is a capable backup, there are no guarantees the 10-year vet will play a full season.
If Salaam is hurt, then look out. Jordan Black, signed from the Chiefs this offseason, is not having a great camp, particularly in pass protection. Credit to linebacker Charlie Anderson for making the plays to get into the backfield, but he is finding his way past Black all too easily. Get well soon, Frye. You need the practice, and the team needs you on the field, too.
The Texans spent most of Thursday’s practice in 11-on-11, making for a fun evening given the record crowd in attendance. The highlight of the workout came during a two-minute drill near the end. In a simulation in which the offense was down by six points and needing to move 70 yards to win, quarterback Matt Schaub spread the ball to three different receivers – Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Jacoby Jones – before finding tight end Owen Daniels on a fourth-and-one play up the middle for a 21-yard, game-winning touchdown pass…
Speaking of Daniels, fantasy football players take heed in not letting this second-year player slip too far down your draft boards. Schaub is doing a fine job finding tight ends in his reads. Maybe this knocks Andre Johnson down a peg or two from his chances of repeating his 103-catch performance of a year ago, but the offense as a whole will benefit from increased production out of Daniels…
Schaub’s night finished strong, a welcome sign of improvement. Maybe he was a little bit nervous in his couple days of practice, but he seems to be settling down now. There were still a couple uneven moments still to be worked through though. He gunned one pass low to Daniels early in practice, then later was intercepted by a leaping DeMeco Ryans in the endzone. Before his heroic finish in the two minute drill, Schaub would also prove himself with three amazing throws, including one 50-yard strike to Johnson. The man love I have for him continues, undaunted …
While Mitchell may be a key UDFA to watch as preseason games begin next week, perhaps the biggest undrafted surprise continues to be linebacker-turned-fullback Jon Abbate. The Wake Forest product nabbed two passes Thursday night, including one during a goalline situation practice for a touchdown. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was looking like someone who’d been catching balls out the backfield his entire college career. With Chris Taylor on injured reserve and Jameel Cook still out, Abbate’s path to the final roster as Vonta Leach’s backup is clear…
There was talk amongst some that maybe cornerback Dunta Robinson wasn’t having his best camp. It sure didn’t look that way on Thursday night. Robinson had multiple pass breakups covering Andre Johnson, who oh by the way is pretty good…
This just in: defensive lineman Jeff Zgonina still has the hugest freaking calves I have ever seen on the practice field. His ankles are bigger than my thighs. He was the first player I saw make it onto the field for Thursday’s practice, but he took forever to make it across the bridge to get there. A 15-year veteran, it kinda like watching those senior citizens amble from their Buicks to the buffet line at Luby’s for the 5 o’clock LuAnn Platter. And if someone can tell me how Zgonina finds tube socks wide enough to keep the blood flowing from his legs to his feet, let me know. I need something to keep my neck warm when I’m skiing next winter. Jerome Mathis Home