Rookie running back Steve Slaton will see his first action as a pro on Saturday against the Broncos.
If the waiting is the hardest part, then these next 24 hours will be brutal for Texans fans. After an eight-month hiatus, Houston players are only a day away from having a chance to hit somebody not wearing a Texans uniform when the preseason kicks off at 7 p.m. against the Denver Broncos at Reliant Stadium.
Here are five things to watch for in this first football game in Houston of the year:
1. The zone blocking scheme's debut. Assistant head coach/offense Alex Gibbs mastered the zone blocking scheme in Denver in the 1990s. He has been hammering its principles into the collective head of the Texans' offense since mini-camp in March, but this will be the first time Houston implements cut blocking (legal blocking below the waste from in front of a defender in an attempt to bring that player to the ground), which is integral to the success of the scheme. The offense hasn't executed cut blocking in practice for the benefit of the health of the Texans defense, so the preseason will be a critical trial-and-error period as linemen and other players hone their skills in this scheme's most crucial art.
Gibbs has worked magic with his scheme in the past, producing the best rushing attacks in the NFL in Denver over a nine-year period (1995-2003) and in Atlanta over a three year period (2004-06). The Texans are desperate for an improved running game to go along with their potent passing attack.
The first preseason game will provide a good look at what's to come. Texans head coach Gary Kubiak plans to play three starters – rookie left tackle Duane Brown, center Chris Myers and right guard Mike Brisiel – for the entire first half. Left guard Chester Pitts and right tackle Eric Winston are likely to play the first quarter.
2. Running back competition. Veterans Ahman Green and Chris Brown are slotted as the top two backs on the depth chart. Green, the starter, has been a man on a mission this offseason as he looks to rebound from his injury-shortened 2007 season. Brown, who has battled back spasms in camp, has been impressive in practices when healthy and may play on Saturday.
The competition heats up after them with Darius Walker, Chris Taylor and rookie Steve Slaton. Slaton, the speed burner from West Virginia, is expected to be a third-down back. Walker finished second on the team with 264 rushing yards (4.6 avg.) last season, and Taylor has taken reps during camp at running back and fullback.
Both Taylor and Walker have a chance to impress coaches and make a case for not only a roster spot but for serious playing time. In Gibbs' system in Denver, late-round draft picks routinely rushed for more than 1,000 yards a season. It would not be unprecedented for one of these two young backs, both undrafted free agents coming out of college, to emerge as a standout runner for the Texans this year.
3. The rookies. The Texans' 2008 rookie class makes its debut on Saturday to high expectations. Fans will get a long look at Brown (first round, No. 26 overall), the highest-drafted offensive lineman in team history. Slaton (third round, No. 89 overall), in addition to running the ball, should also get a look at punt returner.
At this point in camp, the coaches feel that cornerback Antwaun Molden (third round, No. 79 overall) is further along in his progress than Fred Bennett was last year (Bennett himself affirmed as much this week). Molden possesses great physical tools and has been focused on improving his technique in camp. His status for the game is up in the air as he has battled hip/groin pain this week, but Kubiak expects him to play.
Linebacker Xavier Adibi (fourth round, No. 118 overall) should make an instant impact on special teams and has the athleticism to earn extensive playing time as a rookie. Defensive tackle Frank Okam (fifth round, No. 151), if consistent, could be the run-stuffer in the middle the Texans have lacked. Safety Dominique Barber (sixth round, No. 173) hits hard at the line of scrimmage and is part of a deep stable of safeties competing to make the roster.
Quarterback Alex Brink (seventh round, No. 223) will not play this week as the team plans to take an extensive look at second-year quarterback Shane Boyd. Kubiak plans to play Brink next week against the New Orleans Saints.
4. The free agent class. Former New England Patriot Rosevelt Colvin highlights the Texans' free agent class. The coaches feel that the sack specialist could be the pass-rusher the Texans need opposite Mario Williams. Cornerback Jacques Reeves, from the Dallas Cowboys, possesses the kind of speed that Kubiak loves and enters the first preseason game as the starting right cornerback opposite Bennett.
Linebackers Chaun Thompson and Kevin Bentley are battling for playing time. Bentley is likely to see plenty of snaps at middle linebacker as DeMeco Ryans is unlikely to play a great deal in this game. Veteran safety Nick Ferguson, going up against his former team, brings an element of leadership to a young Texans safety group.
5. Preseason star? Who will emerge as the star of the preseason for the Texans? In 2007, rookie wide receiver Jacoby Jones stole the show with an NFL-high four touchdowns in August and seemed on the verge of having a breakout rookie campaign before a shoulder injury slowed his progress early in the regular season. Bennett, meanwhile, demonstrated the confidence that would help him become the Texans' 2007 Rookie of the Year, intercepting a pass from Tony Romo intended for Terrell Owens against the Cowboys.
Aside from the rookies, players to keep an eye on this year include cornerbacks Jamar Fletcher and Derrick Roberson, running backs Walker and Taylor, safety Glenn Earl and any number of reserve offensive linemen. Kubiak has praised Fletcher and Roberson as surprise standout players in recent days. Walker has impressed Kubiak with his attitude and work ethic, and Kubiak felt that both Taylor and Earl were on the verge of big years in 2007 before injuries kept them off the field for the season.
With injuries affecting depth on the offensive line, reserve tackles Rashad Butler and Brandon Frye and guard Kasey Studdard will have ample reps with which to impress their coaches and build momentum for the regular season.