Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is anxious to hit the field Saturday for his first home game at Reliant Stadium.
With the Texans' preseason opener just a day away, here are five key players, position battles and things to watch for in Saturday's preaseason game versus the Chicago Bears.
Punting positional battle: Coming off a season where he struggled at times punting the ball in clutch situations, Chad Stanley has faced a serious camp challenge for his starting job from 14-year NFL veteran Matt Turk.
After what he described as a career best season with the St. Louis Rams, Turk brings a power punting approach to the Texans' special teams. He has hit punts upwards of 60 yards on multiple occasions in practice and has even hit the roof of the team's indoor facility at the Methodist Training Facility.
Stanley, on the other hand, has not hit as many booming punts. Instead, he focuses on consistency and ball placement, particularly inside 20 yards. Stanley's net punting averages over the past four seasons (36.7, 35.7, 35.7 and 36.7 from 2003-2006, respectively) are testiments to his steadiness.
The pair has split reps throughout training camp, but coach Gary Kubiak knows that their contrasting styles add layers of complexity to his staff's final decision.
"It's just really hard for us as a coaching staff," Kubiak said. "One's got the big bomb leg; (Turk) all of a sudden can hit the 65-70 yard punt. Chad (Stanley) is the consistent punter, that's why he's lasted in this league so long. They are different. It's going to come down to how they kick in the preseason, and we'll alternate them and see how they do."
Kubiak said that the punters will each get a similar number of punts in similar situations, so look for how these two perform as they rotate the punting duties Saturday.
Schaub's first show: After three seasons in reserve in Atlanta, the Texans' newest field general will get his first battle test Saturday. Quarterback Matt Schaub, by most accounts, has performed very well during the first two weeks of training camp, already displaying an ability to make tough passes and to place the ball where only his receivers can catch it. Still, his first game as the team's season-opening starter will provide the fourth-year pro out of Virginia with a new experience.
"I think the main difference is you go out and you're in the first play," Schaub said. "As a backup, my mentality in Atlanta was always, 'You have to be ready at any moment.' You have to get yourself ready to play as if you're going out the first snap."
Kubiak, who has praised the performance of Schaub throughout training camp, is just as excited to see him hit the field Saturday.
"You kind of try to hold the excitement a little bit," Kubiak said. "We've got a long way to go before we open up, but I'm excited about the progress he's made as a football player and as a leader on this team."
With the first team expected to play roughly 15 snaps Saturday, tune in for kickoff to see how Schaub does in his first Houston start.
Healthy Mario makes a difference: Entering his second season in the league, defensive end Mario Williams should be able to escape some of the scrutiny he endured last season. A chronic foot injury plagued Williams for nearly all of the 2006 season and took a significant toll on his performance. After taking the time in the offseason to heal his foot and get into better shape, Williams returned to camp 10 pounds lighter, and he knows that his hard work in the offseason should pay off as the season begins
"I know that no matter what happens, whether it's good or bad during the year, at the end of the year it's always going to be better," Williams said. "So I'm just going out there and doing more than I was doing before and know that when I'm doing that, to work harder at whatever I'm doing."
With the additions of pass rush threat Amobi Okoye to his left at defensive tackle and new defensive line coach Jethro Franklin on the sidelines, Williams is ready to shine this season.
Bennett big in the defensive backfield: One of the biggest surprises of training camp has been the outstanding play of rookie cornerback Fred Bennett. A college teammate of fellow Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson for two seasons at South Carolina, Bennett has been mentored by Robinson and already has seen reps with the second team in practice. At 6-1, Bennett is relatively tall for a cornerback, and Kubiak sees that additional height as a key asset of Bennett's game.
"When we came out of OTAs, we liked Fred's length," Kubiak said. "(But) we had some questions, to be honest with you. Since we've come back, Fred's a better player. He's making a lot of plays on the ball. He's responded to the group, the veterans. Dunta (Robinson) helps him, (and) of course he's familiar with him. He has shown as of right now that he's going to be able to help this team pretty quick, so we really liked his improvement."
Bennett probably will see time beginning in the second quarter, when the second team players replace the Texans starters.
Guard play: With starting left guard Chester Pitts sidelined for Saturday's game due to lower back spasms suffered early in the week, a crucial playing opportunity opened up for the Texans' young reserve offensive linemen – as well as a player who has played in every game in franchise history.
After the Pitts injury, Kubiak shifted center Steve McKinney to left guard and placed Mike Flanagan in McKinney's spot. McKinney is expected to get the start at left guard Saturday. According to Kubiak, the decision to place McKinney at guard would have been the type of move made if a similar injury scenario occurred during a regular season game.
"When things like this happen to us in camp, what we try to do as coaches is make decisions in camp like we would make them if we were playing Kansas City this week, so that's our mindset," Kubiak said. "Steve was the guy to go to left guard (Monday) and he went in there and performed extremely well. He's a pro, and he's been very, very sharp this camp. He's had a great offseason and I think his body is much better conditioned than it was last year. He's going to play well for us this year whether it's at center or it's at guard."
Although Pitts did not participate in practice this week, he was present at Thursday afternoon's practice session and said that he expected to be ready for next week's game at Arizona. Still, the injury situation has provided an opportunity for a number of reserves, including guards Kasey Studdard, Mike Brisiel and guard/center Drew Hodgdon.