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Former Texans say DeMeco Ryans is "breath of fresh air" the team needed


The Texans haven't played a down of football in 2023, but there's a renewed excitement about the team.

An excitement that's not existed with the franchise since perhaps 2011 or 2012.

From the fans. The coaches. The players. People here inside the offices at NRG Stadium.

And especially from FORMER Texans.

Since Ryans was hired at the end of January, we've had a chance to talk with numerous Texans from days of yore. Some played here with him. Some didn't. One even overlapped with Ryans at the University of Alabama.

Every one of them is energized by the man nicknamed 'Cap. Several recently attended a veteran minicamp practice and were impressed with the product on the field at the Houston Methodist Training Center.

Houston Texans Legends joined current players as Organized Team Activities continued on June 6, 2023.

What follows is a brief collection of back stories from former Texans, with their memories of Ryans and thoughts about what he can accomplish as head coach.

Kailee Wong played nine seasons in the NFL, the last five in Houston. He began his career as a rookie on the 1998 Vikings, who went 15-1. Two years later, he started every game for Minnesota, would do so again in 2001, and then came to Houston as an expansion draftee. Wong started every game at linebacker for the Texans from 2002 through 2004, and his final year as a pro coincided with Ryans' rookie campaign in Houston. He explained the early impression made in May of 2006.

WONG: "He literally came in and set a tone from the get-go. The entire time looking as though there was no stress. Just smiling and laughing while doing it."


Robaire Smith, like Wong, played a long time in the league. The defensive lineman lasted 11 years, and played for the Texans in 2005 and 2006. He too was impressed immediately by the rookie.

SMITH: "Being that middle linebacker, they didn't just call him 'Cap for nothing. There was a reason then. Even though he was younger than some of those guys calling him captain."


On the other side of the ball, and also in his first year as a Texan was Ephraim Salaam. Entering the ninth of his eventual 13 NFL seasons, Salaam wound up starting 30 combined games for Houston at left tackle in 2006 and 2007. He too, was struck by the rookie Ryans.

SALAAM: "Look, you can tell early on who's in it and who has it. When he touched down from Alabama into Houston, we saw it in him. He was our leader on defense right out of the gate. Defensive rookie of the year. He just carried himself higher and bigger than his stature as a rookie. You could tell he brought something, that intangible, that a lot of other young players don't have at the time. I can see that that same intangible now as a young head coach, he has it."


Ryans would start all 16 games, register 156 tackles—13 of which were for a loss—3.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits that Rookie of the Year season. But Wong said Ryans saved the best for a Week 11 road victory at Oakland.

WONG: "I remember when we played the Raiders. That was going on my ninth year and I'd never seen a stat line like that. He had a stat in every single column. Forced fumble, fumble recovery, interception, sack, tackle for loss. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Ryans also tallied 15 tackles and three pass breakups) That's incredible. That's unheard of. I would love to know how many people have ever put up a stat line like that. He did that as a rookie."

Fast forward to 2009. Ryans was entering his fourth season and was entrenched as a leader on the club. After a 6-10 rookie year, Houston went 8-8 the next two seasons.

Tight end Anthony Hill was a fourth-round pick that spring, and he quickly recognized how special Ryans was.

HILL: "He was the leader of the team when he was there. The leader of the offense and the defense. To see the way he would work, the way he was consistent from the first day I met him till we went to practice a few weeks ago (in 2023)...he was the same guy. He was so strategic and just so consistent."


One of Ryans' Texans teammates also played with him on the Crimson Tide in 2005. Offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell was drafted by Houston three years after Ryans, as the Texans nabbed the center/guard prospect in the third round. In 2009, Caldwell saw in Houston what he'd seen in Tuscaloosa in 2005.

CALDWELL: "Everybody knows DeMeco obviously as a great player but knowing DeMeco just as a man, I don't know if I can recall a more consistent man and person than DeMeco. Unbelievable leader, unbelievable presence. It was clear he was going to be a head coach."


Like Caldwell, former Texans linebacker Darryl Sharpton also had an inkling 'Cap would eventually be in charge of an NFL team. Sharpton lockered next to Ryans his rookie season of 2010, and then again in 2011.

SHARPTON: "DeMeco and I had a conversation once and he asked me, 'Hey, man, what do you want to do when you're done with football?' I was like, 'I'll probably get into some business or something, or try my hand at entrepreneurship.'

I reciprocated the question, and he said 'I'll probably get into coaching.'"


Akeem Dent never played with Ryans. He was a Texans linebacker from 2014 through 2016, after spending his first three years in the NFL with the Falcons. Dent was a defensive assistant coach for Houston in 2019 and 2020, so like Ryans, he's seen the game from both sides.

But Dent played his college ball at Georgia from 2007, and was a high school recruit when Ryans was shining for 'Bama.

DENT: "Alabama was a school that recruited me coming out of high school. So I knew exactly who he was. That's a guy that I always kind of looked at and always followed throughout my career as a player. He was always one of those guys that was at the top of his game."


Smith, Caldwell, Wong and Hill were all part of a group of roughly 30 former players who were at one of the Texans' practices earlier this summer. The current squad wasn't wearing pads, and there wasn't much physical contact, so it can be tough to get a true sense of how good or bad a team is. But based off what they saw, they're all optimistic about what's ahead with Ryans in charge.

HILL: "It just seems like there's a chip on the guys' shoulders. It looks like they have something to prove. There aren't huge expectations, externally. But I don't think that's what DeMeco is going for. I don't think he's going for 'Well, if we win 2 or 3 more games than we won last year, then that's a successful season.' I think he's saying, 'Hell no, I want to win now.'"

An image from the June 6, 2023 Houston Texans OTA practice at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

WONG: "It just seemed like there was this freshness. There's just this renewed energy. There's this renewed excitement. He's an incredible student of the game, mind of the game. But his leadership on the field, you can see it's spilling over. Just the energy in which both sides of the ball were executing. It looked great. It looked clean, it was fast, It was efficient. It's everything you want an NFL team and an NFL practice to look like. And it's just the beginning."

SMITH: "It was like a breath of fresh air. He's a very likeable dude. He can communicate. Has a good spirit and is a good person, but he's also a true competitor. His heart is gold, but he's a competitor and a different guy when he's out there.

HILL: "To see him come back and to see him still be the same guy, still has that big old smile, but still you can tell that he's about to get after someone's ass…it's great."

Ryans and the Texans won't practice again until training camp begins at the end of July. But the former players are in unison, optimistically, about Ryans and the future here.

SALAAM: "It starts with the head coach. I believe he is the type of person that can shift and rebuild that culture."

DENT: "Oh, man, that's the best hire. One of the greatest things they could have done. To have a guy like that, a guy that played and has coached these past years at the level he has. Going from a quality control position to a linebacker coach and then becoming a defensive coordinator. That defense has been elite these past couple years. I'm glad he landed in Houston. When I saw that happen, I was stoked."

CALDWELL: "It's incredible. All the cliche buzzwords you can throw out, they all hit home. It's an incredible hire to get him back here in Houston. I'm very proud for him and his family. I do think it's kind of surreal, kind of storybook, to come back to your team that drafted you and where you kind of were home grown. That part of it is just amazing to see. I know he is fired up about it."

SMITH: "He's a winner. He's proved that. He understands what he's doing. We're excited, man. Excited ain't even the best word to describe it. We know he's going to have those guys pumped and he's going to bring the best out of everybody."

SHARPTON: "DeMeco coming here just felt like one of those things that was almost too good to be true. Like 'Ahh, he'll probably end up somewhere else.'

But then when it actually happened, I was like, 'Whoa, this is real? DeMeco's actually coming back here to be the head coach? My buddy DeMeco, my lockermate, the guy who sat right next to me?'"

WONG: "I couldn't be more bullish on the Texans because we have a guy that is not only going to engage with the players, but he's going to engage at a very high level in everything. With the media, with the fans, with the community. He really is one of those people that just is a genuinely great person. How you do some thing is how you do everything, and he excels at some thing. So everything he does is excellence. I couldn't be happier."

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