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Five questions going into OTAs


Zac Diles (54) move to weakside linebacker during OTAs and begin competing for starting duties.

The Texans begin their organized team activities (OTAs) on Monday. The non-mandatory workouts, which run on May 18-21, May 26-28, June 1-4 and June 9-11, will give coaches a crucial evaluation period going into training camp.

Coach Gary Kubiak and his staff will get their first look at the new crop of rookies and free agents, and they will assess several returning players who must make huge strides before next season.

The glaring omissions from Houston's roster will be cornerback Dunta Robinson, who is holding out due to contract disputes, and defensive end Connor Barwin, who must attend classes at Cincinnati until graduation in mid-June.

That being said, here are the top five questions going into OTAs.

1. Who will emerge as the weakside linebacker?Defensive coordinator Frank Bush plans to start first-round draft pick Brian Cushing at the strongside, and DeMeco Ryans has the MIKE spot locked down. Xavier Adibi, who is entering his second pro season, is the incumbent at the WILL. Adibi battled nagging injuries last year and had trouble keeping his weight up. He probably has gained 20 pounds this offseason, which will help him as he competes for starting duties. Zac Diles, who is coming back from a season-ending leg injury, will work out at the weakside. The Texans also signed Cato June, a Pro Bowler who has played both the SAM and the WILL positions.

"Zac is an integral part of what we want to do," Bush said. "We loved the way he played football last year. Unfortunately, he got injured, but we were really excited about the progress he was making and we are excited about where he is right now. Of course, he is going to have to compete with Brian Cushing and Xavier Adibi. But we do see him in the plans and we do see him moving around and doing some different things with him. We are excited about where he is, and hopefully, he can come back and contribute big time."

2. Who will back up Steve Slaton?
One of the biggest storylines to come out of the Texans' 2009 draft was who they did NOT select: a running back to back up Steve Slaton. Specifically, they need a bigger back who can excel in short-yardage situations and has the speed to succeed in their one-cut scheme. Currently, their options are veterans Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and undrafted rookie free agents Arian Foster and Jeremiah Johnson. Brown has the running style and physique to be "the guy," but injuries have plagued him his entire career and he spent 2008 on injured reserve. Foster possesses the ideal dimensions and Johnson has the quickness and stiff arm.

"Foster had a very, very productive junior season, over 1,000 yards there at Tennessee as a junior," general manager Rick Smith said. "He was not as productive as a senior, but he's a very, very talented young man. He's 6-0, 225 pounds, so he fits that bigger back/complement kind of guy that we were talking about.

"And then we added another young man from Oregon (Johnson). He's not as big; he's a 5-9, 205-pound running back. But he's very shifty with good feet and good hands out of the backfield, another versatile player."

{QUOTE}3. How will Antonio Smith look opposite of Mario Williams?

Defensive end Mario Williams is the cornerstone of Houston's defense. Bush has been drawing up vertical schemes that are predicated on the Texans' pass rush. Last year, that pass rush basically started and ended with Williams, who had 12 of the team's 25 sacks. Signing Antonio Smith in free agency gives the defense a threat at left end, which should keep teams from double teaming Williams. It will be interesting to see how much attention Smith is able to draw away from Williams and how creative the Texans can get with Smith in passing situations. There has been talk about moving Smith inside in passing situations or even having him drop into coverage.

"We can do some different things with Antonio and Mario that can create some different packages for us and be a little bit unorthodox, so people can't get a read on us all the time," Bush said. "Antonio even knows how to drop. We are going to create scenarios that people aren't expecting. "

4. How will Amobi Okoye respond to Bill Kollar?

Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye has to be an impact player for the Texans' defense to be successful this year. He suffered through a sophomore slump in 2008, largely because of a high ankle sprain. During OTAs, new defensive line coach Bill Kollar will be all over Okoye. Kollar is a hard-nosed coach who gets the most out of his players, especially when it comes to technique.

"Amobi's got to step up," Rick Smith said. "He understands that we are counting on him to take that next step this year."

5. How much of an impact will Brian Cushing make?

The Texans selected Brian Cushing No. 15 overall because they needed a high-motor player who can be a game-changer on defense. Bush said all along Cushing was his guy because he can defend against the run and get to the passer. In college, he showed great closing speed and a mean streak on the field. Now, the Texans need him to have a steep learning curve and make a quick transition to the pro level.

"Cushing brings a lot of passion," Bush said. "He played at USC and was a starter for over three years there, and he can play all three (linebacker) positions. He's a smart kid; he's a very tough kid. He loves to play the game. He runs around and knocks the c--- out of people. We like that part about him, and he's very versatile."

"Brian is a multiple-position player," Rick Smith said. "He can play all three spots in the linebacker group. We see him playing the SAM position to start off with, but I think he has demonstrated that he understands the passing game and understands underneath zone coverage, and he can be a nickel back as well. We are excited about him."

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