Opportunity knocks


Chris McKenzie recalls sitting in front of his television last fall in

and watching wide receiver Andre Johnson impose his will on hapless defenders each Sunday.

Flash forward several months, and McKenzie, 23, an undrafted cornerback from

, is doing his best to avoid being Johnson's latest victim.

"It's crazy, because I watched him on TV blowing past guys," McKenzie said, flashing a smile after the latest coaching session. "Then here I go in practice defending him in man coverage.

"Just going against him, you're happy because you're going against the best in the league. I'm like, 'Oh, here we go.' I just try to do my best against him. He's strong."

So far, the coaching sessions have been a crash course in pass coverage for McKenzie, one of the Texans' 12 rookie free agents. While he has encountered some obstacles along the way, the speedy

native is eager to pick up any tips he can.

He certainly hasn't shied away from any challenges. In fact, during this morning's workout, McKenzie broke up a pass intended for Johnson during the team period. Granted, he had some help from the safety, but it was impressive nonetheless.

"You have to try different things with different receivers," McKenzie said. "Some are big and fast and talented, like Andre, where you have to do everything you can. You always have to do everything you can, but you have to use different techniques against a bigger and faster guy like him."

McKenzie's ability to bounce back from his miscues and not repeat them has made him one of the team's most promising rookies thus far in the evaluation process. Already, head coach Dom Capers has noticed McKenzie's talent, which is quite an achievement for any rookie free agent.

In his senior year for the Sun Devils, McKenzie started each game and recorded a career-high 42 tackles for a team that finished 9-3 and beat Purdue in the Sun Bowl. At the NFL Scouting Combine in

this winter, McKenzie delivered one of the most impressive performances among defensive backs with a 4.37-second 40-yard dash and a 45-inch vertical jump. Fortunately for the Texans, McKenzie, who stands 5-8 and weighs 182 pounds, slipped off teams' draft boards and became available.

"Chris McKenzie, when you go back and look, had one of the best combine workouts of anybody," Capers said. "He had a 40-inch vertical jump and he ran in the 4.3s. And he's done well out here. He certainly has the physical tools. We'll just have to see, but you can never have enough good cover guys."

It's too early to project where McKenzie fits in the Texans' secondary rotation. Nothing has been handed to him yet. If he does earn a roster spot, he likely will have to make an impact on special teams before he sees significant minutes on defense. For someone that only played sparingly on special teams in college, the transition to the kicking game has been an adjustment for McKenzie. But you won't hear him complaining.

"Your mentality has to change," McKenzie said of his approach to special teams. "You have to give your all on special teams. I'm not a starter; I'm an undrafted free agent coming in here trying to get a job. I definitely have to work on special teams as hard as I can."

Indeed, McKenzie has come a long way in the months since last football season, when he admired NFL stars from afar. Now, he's competing against them and holding his ground. Don't worry about him getting a big head, though. According to McKenzie, even if he were a first-round draft pick, he'd still approach the game as he does now, with a chip on his shoulder.

"That's just the attitude you have to have coming out on the field," McKenzie said. "You always do your best. Definitely, I think I have to prove myself."

So far, he's doing a fine job of it.

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