Coming off his best season in a Texans uniform, defensive tackle Travis Johnson has had a minor setback this offseason. Unable to attend the Texans' mini-camp from May 9-11 because of his wedding, Johnson has been held out of the first three days of OTAs with a pelvic injury.
"It's kind of been something's that bothered him before and then it crept up again back in February, early March," head coach Gary Kubiak said Monday. "We've tried a few different scenarios. He had an injection the other day that we're waiting to see how he recovers from. He has felt better. He ran Friday, he ran (Monday), so we'll see."
Though Johnson, who tallied a career-high 41 tackles and his first career interception while starting 15 games last season, has been unable to participate in practices thus far, he said he's "right on the verge" of returning to the field and anticipates being back in action before the end of OTAs.
In the meantime, the 6-3, 305-pound tackle is watching eagerly as his teammates practice with a vigor coming off the best season in franchise history.
"Guys are working a lot harder (than in years past)," Johnson said. "I think guys right now, we see what eight wins got us and now we're just trying to get better this year. I think everybody's really working hard. Me not being out there and just being observant right now is showing me a lot about the guys and the preparation they put in earlier (in the offseason)."
Johnson is entering his fourth season in the league, and second under the guidance of defensive line coach Jethro Franklin and senior defensive assistant Frank Bush. Last season was Johnson's first playing strictly at the nose position; he had played primarily in the three-technique before the arrival of Franklin and Bush.
According to Franklin, Johnson gradually adapted to the difficult position change by improving his technique as the 2007 season progressed. As such, Franklin has high expectations of what lies ahead for the athletic former first-round pick.
"He did a good job for us last year," Franklin said. "He played hard. He ran the way we needed him to run to the ball. He made plays, and there are still plays out there for him to make. So the sky is definitely the limit with him.
"We have to improve our pass-rush from that position, and he definitely has the tools to do that. There are still things that he needs to improve on as a nose guard to even have more success. We were real pleased with what he did, but at the same time it showed him and it showed us what he's really capable of, and, in my opinion, we're just scratching the surface."
That's precisely why Franklin wants to see his starting nose tackle back on the field as soon as possible.
"There are definitely things you can learn from watching practice, but you get better at football by playing football, not by watching," he said. "There's little things you can pick up, there's little things you can do, but you've got to get your hand in the ground in the three-point stance and come off on that ball and see the blocking combinations and react to what you see and flexing your muscles and grunting and grinding and just being an old gritty nose guard.
"That makes you become a damn good nose guard."
While Franklin keeps his focus primarily on players out on the field at practice, he said he has told Johnson to learn as much as he can just by watching.
"He learns what the guy next to him is doing on a particular play or on a particular block," Franklin said. "He learns really what goes on from a formation standpoint by looking at different motions and shifts and things of that nature, what plays they run in combination with those different motions and shifts and what have you."
In Johnson's stead, rookie Frank Okam and second-year tackle DelJuan Robinson have received extra reps. Franklin said they are improving daily and learning how to be consistent.
"One man's loss is another man's treasure," Franklin said. "Those two guys are really doing a good job of trying to get done what we're asking them to do and it is giving them the ability to get more reps, so it's been good from that standpoint.
"But we'd like to have Travis back out there, no question about it. He's a guy that's been in a few fights with us and he definitely knows what it takes. There's nothing like experience, and that's what this thing is all about."
The sooner Johnson returns, the more experience he'll have with his teammates heading into next season.
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