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Five lessons learned from mini-camp

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Head coach Gary Kubiak decided to hold mini-camp earlier this year because he wanted to give coaches, especially recently hired assistant defensive back coach Ray Rhodes and assistant head coach Alex Gibbs, more time to evaluate new talent before OTAs and training camp begin.

The idea was to give younger players as many reps as possible to see how they stack up against veteran, first-team talent.

Over the weekend, the coaches learned first and foremost they have a starter in left tackle Duane Brown, the 26th overall pick. Here are the top five lessons learned from the Texans' five mini-camp practices:

1. Duane Brown is starting material. Before Friday's practice, Brown was told he would be lining up next to guard Chester Pitts and taking reps at left tackle with the first team. It was a baptism by fire for the rookie.

Right off the bat, Brown had to face defensive end Mario Williams in individual drills. Williams, who has never looked stronger or faster, exploded off the line of scrimmage and tore past Brown.

"It's a way different Mario than I lined up against four years ago," said Brown, who faced Williams in ACC play as a sophomore at Virginia Tech. "He's a beast out there. Like I said, it's good going against him. It can really help you out on Sundays."

That's Kubiak's plan. The head coach thinks that facing Williams every day will help make Brown into a legitimate starter.

"Going against Mario (Williams) every day, Mario was impressive in this camp," Kubiak said. "I tell you, he's an impressive young man right now. And y'all can see it, watching him practice and how he's going about it, and if Duane has to see him on a daily basis, he can't help but get there."

Brown made tremendous strides in three days. With Gibbs in his ear, the left tackle improved his footwork and technique and showed great promise in the Texans' zone blocking scheme.

The rookie was not declared the starter over 11th-year pro Ephraim Salaam, but Brown looks well on his way to becoming the team's answer at left tackle.

{QUOTE}2. Salaam will put up a fight. When Salaam found out Brown would be taking reps with the first team in his place during mini-camp, the veteran was not a happy camper. The normally effusive left tackle refused to speak to the media until Sunday's practice had concluded and told reporters that he would fight to regain his starting spot.

"It took me a couple days, but I am a competitor, and this is what I do," Salaam said. "This is my job. This is what I do for a living, and I've been starting in this league for a long time. And it took me a while. I understand where they're coming from. I didn't like it, but I understand what they need to see out of him to see how far along he is and what they need to work on with him, and I'm OK with that. The competition starts when training camp comes around and I'm up for competition. I've been competing for my job for 11 years, so it's nothing new to me."

Salaam said there was no bad blood between he and Brown and that he was impressed with the rookie's athleticism.

"I'm not the guy to sabotage the team," Salaam said. "That's not me.

"The new terminology and the speed of practice, it's heavy, it's tough, especially for a left tackle in this league. To just come in and get all this thrown on you, plus to be on the edge by yourself – he's handling it alright. There are some things he needs to work on, but that's what we're all here for."

3. The stars in top form. The undisputed stars of the Texans right now are Andre Johnson, DeMeco Ryans, Mario Williams and Matt Schaub. The team leaders and big-time playmakers looked as dominant as ever over the weekend.

Schaub showed had recovered from offseason left shoulder surgery by throwing deep bombs to receivers Kevin Walter and Johnson, who gave rookie defenders a clinic with his moves after the catch.

Johnson said he thinks the zone scheme that Gibbs is installing will improve the entire offensive unit.

"You definitely don't want to be one-dimensional, and I think that if we were to get our running game going this year, that's definitely one thing coach Kubiak wants to do," Johnson said. "He wants to run the ball. And you look at all the successful teams, they're able to run the ball. So if we can run the ball, I think we'll be a lot better."

Ryans, who will wear a defensive earpiece in his helmet this season, directed traffic from the 'mike' linebacker spot.

Perhaps the most impressive Texan was Williams, who is coming off a team-record 14-sack season.

"That light went on for Mario somewhere last year about Week 7 or 8," Kubiak said. "Everybody saw it, and if you watch practice right now you see him at another level. I think the sky's the limit for him. I don't want to sit here and say too much; I just love the way he works. I love the way he handles himself. Football is very important to Mario, and he's working his way toward a big, big year."
4. There's no shortage of ball carriers. The team is carrying five running backs on its roster, which means at least one will have to go. The question is: who will it be?

Veterans Ahman Green and Chris Brown could be the two-headed monster that the Texans have wanted in their backfield. Brown learned Gibbs' zone scheme in college at Colorado and looked comfortable slashing up the middle.

"It just brings back the old memories (from college)," Brown said. "I know all of the terminology, the protections. It's not too hard to learn. It's not that big of a learning curve for me."

Chris Taylor was one of the top running backs on the roster last year before he hurt his knee on the first day of offseason practice. Now that he is 100 percent healthy, Taylor thinks he will shine in the Texans' new system.

"That's just my style of running," Taylor said. "I'm a one-cut-then-get-north type of guy. I don't do all the shaking and baking. In college, we ran more of a spread offense. That really wasn't my style, but this is my style, and I feel that I can be successful in this offense."

Kubiak thought rookie Steve Slaton did some good things over the weekend. The third-round pick will have to adjust to NFL-sized hits, but could complement the veterans as a third-down back.

Rounding out the group is second-year pro Darius Walker, who was second on the team in rushing yards last year with 264.

5. The up-and-coming cornerbacks look promising. The secondary has been a huge concern for the Texans with cornerback Dunta Robinson expected to be sidelined at least until October. Certainly, Robinson will be missed, but there are some more-than-capable players who can carry the load.

Fred Bennett, who started eight games last season and led the team in interceptions with three, should be even more dominant with a year of experience under his belt.

"It's on my shoulders now," Bennett said. "I don't have D-Rob here to help me. I mean, he's still mentoring me and tutoring, but on the field-wise, he's not able to do that right now, so the weight is all on my shoulders. I feel like I'm ready for that."

Rookie Antwaun Molden flashed his raw talent and looked much like Bennett did last year. Molden possesses the speed and athleticism to keep up with any receiver on the team. He needs to improve his technique in man-to-man coverages, which will be a point of emphasis from defensive backs coach Jon Hoke and veteran assistant Ray Rhodes.

Jacques Reeves, who signed with the Texans in free agency after spending four years with the Cowboys, brings experience to the group and could start opposite Bennett.

"I'm real excited about our secondary," Bennett said. "I think we've got a lot of young, great talent, as well as the old talent back there. We've got guys that are willing to compete and want to play, want to get out there and play, and that's the main thing about them. If you're willing to put yourself on the line and want to get out there and play and help the team in any kind of way, I think that'll help us tremendously."

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