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Five things to watch: Texans vs. 49ers

Posted Aug 18, 2012

Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-6 last season, AFC South) take on the San Francisco 49ers (13-3, 1st NFC West) in their preseason home opener at Reliant Stadium on Saturday.

Trindon Holliday

Here are five things to watch when the Texans (10-6 last season, AFC South) take on the San Francisco 49ers (13-3, 1st NFC West) in their preseason home opener at Reliant Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. CT.

1. WR Watch:
All eyes will be on the Texans’ wide receivers, and not just their young ones.

All-Pro Andre Johnson will make his 2012 debut on Saturday. The Texans held him out last weekend, opting to err on the side of caution after Johnson’s early-camp groin injury. Johnson practiced all week and is expected to play about three series as the Texans ease him into game action.

Rookie fourth-round draft pick Keshawn Martin started for Johnson last week. He played the part well, catching two passes for 24 yards and gaining 11 yards on an end-around. Second-year pro Lestar Jean looks to build on his two-catch, 50-yard performance at Carolina. Rookie third-round pick Devier Posey had only one pass thrown his way and is still looking for his first NFL catch.

2.Mercilus Round 2: Rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus had 1.5 sacks last Saturday in his NFL debut. What will he do for an encore?

So far, the outside linebacker from Illinois has more lived up to his billing as the 26th overall pick in the 2012 draft. The Texans expect Mercilus, who led the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles as a junior in 2011, to become their third edge rusher to complement Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.

“The guy did the things we thought he could do going in,” Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this week. “He can rush the passer, he gets off blocks well, he hustles to the ball and he’s smart.

“We’ll play him more and more with the first group to see how he does. I think he’ll do well.”

3. Special ability: Wide receiver Trindon Holliday has a chance to make the Texans’ 53-man roster as a return specialist if he continues to make big plays like he did last week at Carolina.

Holliday (5-5, 169) raced 90 yards for a touchdown on his first kickoff return in the preseason opener last Saturday. He followed that with returns of 36 and 33 yards, averaging 53.0 yards on three kickoff returns.

The former NCAA sprint champion, who has been clocked at 10.00 seconds in the 100 meters and in the 4.2s in the 40-yard dash, also returned three punts for 23 yards (7.7 average). A sixth-round draft pick out of LSU in 2010, Holliday missed his rookie season with a thumb injury and spent most of last season on the Texans’ practice squad.

Holliday will have to be special – and consistent – if he is to stick as the Texans’ “all-time returner,” as Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Sunday he has a chance to be. He’ll get his chances on Saturday night.

4. O-line battle: The Texans will continue to rotate players at right tackle and right guard as they work toward settling position battles for both starting jobs.

Derek Newton, a second-year pro from Arkansas State, will start at right tackle. Rashad Butler, a seventh-year pro who started last week at Carolina, will come off the bench. At right guard, fourth-year pro Antoine Caldwell will start for the second consecutive week over rookie third-round draft pick Brandon Brooks.

“Between the four of them, they will all play the same throughout three quarters of play,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “That’s the way we’ll do it this week.”

Kubiak said Butler and Caldwell played more like veterans than their younger counterparts in the preseason opener. He liked what Brooks did in pass protection and said Newton was inconsistent but showed flashes of ability. He emphasized that Newton starting this week was simply part of a rotation.

“I think Newton deserves a chance to go out there as a starter this week,” Kubiak said. “It’s not nothing Butler did. The young guard (Brooks)’s not ready to go do that, or I’d put him in there right now. We’ll give Newton a chance, but between him and Butler, they’re going to play the same amount of plays. It’s still a hell of a battle going on.”

5. Keenum’s chance: Rookie quarterback Case Keenum is slated for more playing time on Saturday after going 2-of-3 for 33 yards in the fourth quarter against the Panthers. Kubiak said he wants to see the undrafted free agent from Houston get reps with the Texans’ second-team offensive line.

Keenum played with the third-team line last Saturday. He was the Texans’ fourth quarterback in the game after Matt Schaub, T.J. Yates and John Beck.

“This kid loves to play,” Kubiak said. “That’s important. I know that sounds cliché, but he comes out here every day ready to work. He’s very smart. He’s picked up what we’re doing. Guys kind of gravitate to him. We’ve got guys from all over this country trying to make this team, and he can take his group and get them going in the right direction like he did the other night. He’s got that ‘it’ factor and he’s trying to figure out how to play the quarterback under the center again, and I think he’s come a long way.”

Keenum, who set the NCAA career passing yardage record at Houston, said he has noticed himself make definite progress but knows he still has a long way to go.

“I take every day as seriously as I can and work each day as hard as I can,” he said. “I know this week’s going to be really cool getting to play here in Houston in front of the Houston home crowd again, so I’m really excited about that.”

Twitter.com/NickScurfield

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