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Camp battle: Safety


Will Demps was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2007. Now he's stuck in a numbers game trying to maintain his starting spot.

If a schoolyard game of chase broke out among Texans safeties, Will Demps and C.C. Brown would be "it." If the hounds were running today, Demps and Brown would consider themselves the foxes.

The veteran pair opened camp as the starting safeties, but they definitely feel the hot breath and hear the rapid footsteps behind them from a talented group trying to make the final roster.

With possibly the deepest position on the team to shepherd, defensive backs coach Jon Hoke might need to use the smallest details to pick his roster for the start of the season. It's that close.

"We've got six guys back there now and it's good competition,'' Hoke said. "You can't say this guy or that has jumped out and taken a position over another guy. You've got Demps and C. Brown running with the ones, but Glenn Earl and Nick Ferguson are right there competing and doing a good job."

Brandon Harrison and rookie sixth-round pick Dominique Barber also are in the mix.

{QUOTE}Demps remembers when he was back there in the pack, nipping at the heels of the veterans.

"Being an undrafted guy, I had to sneak up on the veteran guys," Demps said. "Now, me being a veteran guy, you can't let your guard down at any time."

Still, Demps steps back into the pack and offers advice to the younger players. Maybe he remembers the anxiety of being a first-year player.

"I speak to them all," he said. "I don't tell them what to do. I teach them what to do. If they have a question, I try to help them out."

But not too much.

"You don't teach them all the tricks, but you teach them little tricks to get by," Demps said.

Every position in camp is competitive, but the race for a spot on the final roster is especially tight among the safeties.

Ferguson, 33, the oldest member of the group, says that's a good thing.

"Some people fear competition, but I think when there are good people around you, competition brings out the best in you," Ferguson said. "There are a lot of guys who are one play away from being a starter.

"Competition is going to make this team better. Most teams that go to the Super Bowl, it's not just the starters that help them. It's knowing you have quality backups in case something happens. We're getting to that point here."

Demps and Brown weren't the starters going into last season. Brown took over at strong safety when Earl went out for the season with a foot injury. Demps didn't join the team until the second week and ended up starting and became an alternate for the Pro Bowl.

Now Earl wants his old spot back and Ferguson isn't ready to call it a career.

"I've been around for a while and this is one of the most competitive camps I've been at, especially at the safety position," Ferguson said. "It's going to be one hell of a group, not just from a safety standpoint.

"I see this team as better than an 8-8 team. This is a playoff-caliber team."

Earl doesn't expect to get his job back just because he was a starter before his injury.

"It's definitely a battle, but it's like this every year," Earl said. "I don't feel like you come in any year deserving something or handed anything. I think every year I've been here, we've drafted a safety. So it's nothing new. Everyone can play. Everyone has to up his game."

Demps came on strong after signing with the Texans. He had 42 tackles, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He expects more will be needed to keep his starting job this season.

"Nothing is ever a lock," he said. "I've always got to work hard and be consistent at what I do. Every day you've got to get better and whoever the best safeties are on this field will play."

Demps sees people jockeying for position throughout the roster.

"We have a lot of competition and that makes the best for our team," Demps said. "I think that's the exciting part of the Houston Texans. Before, there was no competition. People were out there never competing and the Houston Texans were not known in the NFL.

"Now, we're sneaking up on people. We have a good group of safeties. That's all you can hope for."

Although it's still early in camp, Hoke has made a few notes.

"Barber's been a good surprise," Hoke said. "He understands football, coming from a little bit of a football family. He's instinctive and knows how to play. I think Glenn Earl has come back off his injury and done a good job.

"C. Brown has continued to get better. They all do their thing. Will Demps is very instinctive and knows how to play. He's a great communicator on the field. They all have their strengths."

The players and Hoke see another team strength with the addition of veteran coach Ray Rhodes, who assists with the defensive backs.

"I've been in this league for awhile and I've worked with some good coaches, but he's a hell of a coach," Ferguson said. "He's coached the game, he's played the game. So with that insight, he can tell you some things you can bring to your game as far as how the offense will attack you and look at your individual play.

"He makes you a better player."

One knowledgeable observer at training camp has been Bubba McDowell, a former safety with the Houston Oilers. He knows what the safeties are experiencing. It's a team thing, but there also is another side.

"Any time you got safeties like the Texans have here, it's pretty close," he said. "Now it comes into the competing part and how you feed your family comes up. Every man is for himself ultimately.

"You want to get to the big level. That's what everybody works for. When the talent is that close, you have to work that much harder."

EDITOR'S NOTE: *Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports. *

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