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Five things to watch: Texans vs. Buccaneers


Rookie cornerback Antwaun Molden should see a lot of playing time against Tampa Bay.

The Texans' preseason finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feature young players and veterans fighting for spots on the team before the roster is trimmed to the 53-man limit. Here are five position battles and players to watch in Thursday night's game at Reliant Stadium.

1. Third-string quarterback honors: Coach Gary Kubiak used to buy into the philosophy that two quarterbacks on the active roster were sufficient. He changed his mind last year when starter Matt Schaub missed five games due to concussions and a separated left shoulder.

The first two quarterbacks are a given - Schaub and backup Sage Rosenfels could be the NFL's best tandem under center. But Kubiak must decide between rookie Alex Brink and second-year pro Shane Boyd for third-string duties.

Boyd got his chance against Denver, leading the Texans on a game-winning scoring drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. In that game, he also finished third on the team in rushing with 28 yards. Boyd is mobile and has a cannon for an arm. Accuracy has been the biggest issue for the Kentucky product, but the Texans think that can develop with more reps.

Brink, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, made his debut against the Saints. He began his first drive backed up at the Texans' three-yard line, but he was able to covert on a couple of third downs and help keep New Orleans from scoring in the fourth quarter. Some believe Brink is destined for the practice squad, but the athletic rookie is looking to show coaches why he was Washington State's all-time leader in career net yards.

{QUOTE}2. Spotlight on safeties: The team's brass is trying to decide whether they should carry four or five safeties, and the determining factor will be how much a player can contribute on special teams.

Strong safety C.C. Brown and free safety Will Demps remain entrenched as the starters, but there are four backups vying for spots: Nick Ferguson, Brandon Harrison, Glenn Earl and Dominique Barber.

The Texans drafted Barber, brother of Cowboys running back Marion Barber III, in the sixth round and like his speed and athleticism. They also don't like cutting draft picks. Still, Barber is competing against Earl, who started for the team in 2006 before missing last season with a foot injury, and 10th-year pro Nick Ferguson, a special teams standout this preseason. Harrison, entering his second pro season, also has shown great improvement.

Ferguson has fought through many tough preseasons prior to arriving in Houston, playing behind Pro Bowl safeties John Lynch and Henry Jones. He believes the Texans' tough decision at safety proves how much the talent level on the team has improved.

"We have a couple of great guys at safety, and each team in the league wants to have that problem," Ferguson said. "The thing is that it's not how good your starters are, it's how good your backups are, because when they (starters) go down, those are the guys that have to step in. That's why you see the teams like Green Bay, the Giants, the Patriots and the Colts always in the playoffs and they advance to the Super Bowl."

On Thursday, the spotlight probably will shine on the two youngest players - Harrison and Barber. Most of their playing time in the preseason has been on special teams, and the coaches would like to test their coverage skills before making any decisions.

3. Numbers game at wide receiver: Before Harry Williams went down with a probable career-ending spinal injury against the Cowboys, the Texans had planned on carrying six wide receivers: Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, André Davis, David Anderson, Jacoby Jones and Williams. That's because Williams had been the team's best special teams player in the preseason. With Williams gone, there's a chance for another wideout to step and fill that role.

Darnell Jenkins, LeRon McCoy and Mark Simmons are the candidates. Simmons and McCoy, who impressed coaches during OTAs, both have caught a couple of passes, but none of the three has made memorable plays. They each will get their chance against the Bucs to prove that they can make tough grabs and rack up special teams tackles.

4. Cornerback conundrum: Cornerback Dunta Robinson was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list on Tuesday. He only plans to stay there until the Texans travel to Minnesota in Week 9 (to watch Robinson talk about his comeback, click **here**).

Regardless, there is a major void for the Texans to fill with Robinson on the sidelines. Second-year pro Fred Bennett moved over to the right side and has developed into the team's star in the secondary. Bennett led the Texans in interceptions last season with three and hardly has seen a ball come his way during the preseason as quarterbacks try to avoid him.

It may seem like Jacques Reeves has been wearing a large target on his back, but the corner has solidified himself as the starter opposite Bennett. The coaches have been impressed with his speed and ability to get into position on coverage.

"He doesn't quite get the ball out," Kubiak said. "It's something that we are concentrating on him with. I like his effort. I like how he plays. I think he's going to be a fine player for us, but right now it seems like a lot of other things are coming his way. He's just not making the play on the ball."

The players right on Reeves' heels competing for spots are DeMarcus Faggins, Jamar Fletcher, Antwaun Molden and Derrick Roberson.

Molden, a third-round draft pick this year, has a long way to go but has shown incredible speed and physical ability. The coaches would like to see him get more reps before the regular season, so he could see extended time against Tampa Bay.

"I know what he is out here on the practice field, but this will be a great game to see what indication his playing ability is," defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. "I like Molden, and I think he can help us also on the special teams."

Faggins, a starter at the beginning of last year, had a pass defensed against the Cowboys, while Fletcher and Roberson both put together impressive camps. It's likely at least one of these players will have to go, but it won't be any easy cut for the Texans to make.

5. Featured rookies: There are a few rookies the Texans would like to see get more snaps in game situations. Fourth-round draft pick Xavier Adibi missed time during the preseason with a sore Achilles, and coaches would like to test his tackling ability against the Bucs.

"I'm praying to God that he can play this week so we'll get a good opportunity to evaluate him," Smith said. "If not, then this organization has to make a decision based on what we saw of him in college. I know he can run and I know he has good feet, he's got good instincts. How does he play the game at this level? I haven't seen yet. I'm hoping he can play this week."

Defensive tackle Frank Okam recovered a fumble against Dallas, but the fifth-round draft pick will get a chance to work on his run defense on Thursday.

"He got to play last week against Dallas," Smith said. "I thought he played a little better in some areas, but some areas not. But he will get plenty of reps this week to be able to evaluate him. He's a big man; he's the biggest man on our football team. He's got size. He does have good feet. His quickness can improve a little bit, but once again, he does weigh 347 pounds. His determination will be on this week also."

Finally, undrafted rookie free agent Jessie Nading will get a chance to rush the passer. Kubiak has liked the defensive end's effort, especially in nickel.

"You go back and look through the years, it's amazing how many kids have made a team on the last game just by how they play, how many guys have gotten put on the practice squad because of how they play," Kubiak said. "There's been players who lose jobs because of how they play in that game. So, the thing we want to do is get them on the field, be able to look at plays at the end of this game and be able to evaluate those kids without having to make those decisions strictly off practice.

"The players are smart. They know where the bubbles are and where the problems are and where we're trying to make decisions, and they understand. And if they think they're in a very tough situation making this team, if anything, they're trying to prove they can play in the league."

Notes: The Thursday night game between the Texans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will air locally at 7 pm on th CW-39. All fans attending the game should enter Reliant Stadium early for a special tribute to wide receiver Harry Williams during the players' introductions. Williams' career ended after taking a hit in the Dallas game and he is recovering from a lengthy surgery to fuse together his cervical spine.

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