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Playmaking Nolan steps into starting lineup at safety


Troy Nolan has a way of getting noticed, mainly by stealing passes intended for other people. In his first regular-season pro game last season, the Texans' safety intercepted two passes; the second one clinched a victory.

Nolan has played on third downs in the nickel defense this season for the Texans. When free safety Danieal Manning suffered a fractured fibula in last week's 41-7 victory at Tennessee, Nolan became a starter. He'll be there Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"When you watch Troy, he has a nose for the football," Texans defensive backs coach Vance Joseph said. "Watching him last year, the ball finds the kid. In preseason, that 'Frisco game, the ball finds the kid. I'm looking forward to the same results from this guy."

If there is concern, Joseph doesn't show it.

"We've got a philosophy in the secondary, 'Next man up,'" Joseph said.  "Obviously, Manning being hurt, that's a concern, but they've all been in the same meeting rooms, so next guy up. The standards aren't going to change. The expectations aren't going to change.

"It's professional football, so I believe in Troy Nolan. We're going to be fine."

With Manning expected to be out at least four weeks, coach Gary Kubiak quickly promoted Nolan to the starting role.

"He's always had a knack for the ball, y'all know that," Kubiak said on Monday. "When he's played, he's come up with interceptions and come up with big plays. He's played good for Joe (Marciano on special teams). The thing for Troy has been getting comfortable with the mental part of the game to where that was easy for him so that his talents could go take over. That's been something we've been looking for."

Nolan has 14 tackles this season, one for a loss, along with one quarterback hit and three passes defensed.

"I feel good about (Kubiak) believing in me that I can go out and get it done and help the team out," Nolan said. "The mindset has been the same since the beginning, but you've got to be on it mentally. I'm not feeling pressure. It's just 'Go out and make plays.'"

Nolan was a seventh-round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2009. He signed a four-year contract in June, but by Aug. 18 he was on injured reserve and out for the year with a wrist injury.

He came back strong last season. In his first game as a pro, he picked off two passes against the Raiders. He got another one in the final game of the season against Jacksonville. He's been Manning's backup this season.

Nolan said he started feeling comfortable about midseason last year after returning from his injury. That comfort level appears to have only increased under Joseph.

"He has great ball skills, great range in the middle of the field," Joseph said. "He's a true free safety. I'm expecting Troy to make plays. Even last year when Troy played in abundance, he made plays, so I'm expecting more."

It's not like Nolan is stepping blindly into a pressure-cooker.

"He's been starting on third downs," Joseph said. "He's played in every game we've played. He's played a big role for us on third down. We're in the top 10 (in defense), so he's done a good job. Now his role is going to expand. He's going to do a good job."

Nolan always has had an eye out for interceptions.

After a junior college career at College of the Canyons, Nolan had six interceptions, two for touchdowns, in 13 games at Arizona State in 2007. In 2008, he intercepted four passes and returned two for touchdowns and also returned a fumble for a score. That's five defensive touchdowns in only two Pac-10 seasons.

"I try to get around, read the quarterback," Nolan said. "It comes with film study, just being a ball hawk and just fly around and make plays. We believe when the ball is in the air, it's our ball. I'm all for equal opportunity receiving."

Nolan's technique is simple.

"Just get after the ball, run hard to the ball every time," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen, a tip or something can happen when the ball's in the air. You can make a play and change the game and switch the momentum."

Nolan will get his chance Sunday against the 2-5 Jaguars, featuring rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the AFC's leading rusher.

"They've got a pretty good running game," Nolan said. "They've got a good defense, out there making plays. They kind of helped keep Baltimore in check. I see a physical team and defense, and the offense made a few plays out there to win the game."

Nolan is looking for his first theft this season. Gabbert has thrown two interceptions in five games as the Jaguars' starter.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.

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