The Texans have a nice problem looming at running back behind Arian Foster.
They have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Derrick Ward and Steve Slaton. They also have a talented, hungry second-round draft pick coming off of injury in Ben Tate.
The problem is that they only have one football to give them.
"When you go to (training) camp, those things tend to work themselves out," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Last year when we went, we didn't know who our number one was. We ended up with the top rusher in football. Our number two wasn't even on our team when we got started last year, and then we get Derrick.
"So you don't know how things are going to pan out, but there's plenty of reps to go around for Steve, for Tate, for Derrick, and obviously Arian's gonna get his reps. I'm excited to see (Chris) Ogbannaya. Usually the thing that sorts out whether you keep four backs or five backs is special teams. Those guys will have to be contributors. We'll see what happens."
The Texans kept three running backs on the roster in 2010 – Foster, Ward and Slaton. Tate suffered a season-ending injury in the first preseason game. Ogbonnaya spent the year on the Texans' practice squad.
Foster is the unquestioned No. 1 back after leading the league in rushing last season. Ward averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns as his backup, making it fair to wonder whether he can be supplanted from the No. 2 role.
"That remains to be seen," Texans running backs coach Chick Harris said. "If Derrick takes off where he left off, it's going to be tough to do it. But there's a young guy named Ben Tate that's going out there, and he's going to be challenging both backs that are supposedly ahead of him to get their jobs. And that's what we want. The greatest atmosphere in the world that you can have is competition. Competition will make everyone better."
Harris, who has been with the Texans since 2002, expects each of his running backs to "push like this is (his) first day on the football field in the National Football League" in training camp this year.
"You've got to have the humility to go out there and outwork everybody, get in there and fight for every yard, protect the football," he said. "Do all the really hard, gritty stuff to be a good football player. Run tough when it's tough going. Be able, if you get out into space, to make a play. But at the end of the day, not committing any mental mistakes or making poor decisions that can cost your team a win. That's so important."
Ward, 30, ran for 1,025 yards with the New York Giants in 2008. His veteran leadership in a young backfield is part of why Harris was happy to see the Texans re-sign him in March.
"I thought he's a piece that can help us win," Harris said. "I think you need more than two running backs to make it, because you can lose one at any time. So if you have three, you've got a chance. But a chance, that's all it is. And you just pray that all of them can stay healthy and continue to progress."
Behind Foster and Ward last season was Slaton, who had 1,282 rushing yards as a rookie in 2008. He had injury and fumbling problems in 2009 and played sparingly in 2010, leading to media speculation that he could be the odd man out in the Texans' backfield.
"Steve is a talented individual," Harris said. "He has got to fight. He's in a four-person fight there at the position. Now we have a guy that's established himself as being one of the best players in Arian. We have a guy named Derrick Ward that has played pretty doggoned good. We have a young rookie (Tate) that thinks that he should be up there in the mix. And Steve has got to say, 'This is where I fit in.' He has got to make sure that he takes a part of our offense and says, 'This is where you can count on me.'"
So could the Texans have room for four running backs on the roster?
"You never know how long you're going to have four running backs," Harris said. "You've got four running backs to start the season. Now, I can't tell you what I'm going to have at the end of the season. That's the whole thing. That's why it's important that everyone fights for a position. It's a day-to-day make good. Week-to-week. Month-to-month. You've got to play the season.
"You're in a position that everybody's looking to hurt you or stop you. You just pray that doesn't happen and that we can make progress. That's all I'm looking for. I can't say, 'Four guys.' I shudder when people say, 'Oh, well you've got four running backs.' I got four running backs right now, we haven't practiced one down. Once you start practicing, you'll see how long they can last. Get to January, and if you play well, we'll know about it."