When veteran cornerback Jacques Reeves went down with a fractured fibula on Day 5 of training camp, it seemed like the Texans secondary couldn't have caught a worse break.
With Reeves expected to miss 6-8 weeks and secondary stalwart Dunta Robinson absent from camp due to a contract dispute, fourth-year veteran Fred Bennett stood as virtually the sole healthy veteran at cornerback.
And beneath Bennett, the unit's inexperience was even more pronounced—at the time of Reeves' injury, the six healthy cornerbacks beneath Bennett on the depth chart only shared a combined six years of NFL experience.
But the loss of Reeves has opened the door for a pair of rookie draftees, fourth-round pick Glover Quin and sixth-round selection Brice McCain, to gain additional snaps and emerge as viable candidates for playing time at cornerback.
"I really feel like those two guys, with the addition of some of the other young guys, can really play." Bennett said. "You're looking for guys who can go out there and do the things your coaches teach you to do, and I thought those young guys did well."
Quin and McCain have been sharing reps at the starting cornerback slot opposite Bennett over the past few weeks, and they'll continue the switch when the Texans face the New Orleans Saints. Although they each received an equal number of repetitions against Kansas City, McCain was the designated starter against the Chiefs. When Houston lines up against Drew Brees and last year's top-ranked passing attack Saturday, it will be Quin who comes out of the gate first to match up against the Saints' receiving corps.
After having a good look at the young Texans' secondary during practice on Thursday, Brees know that he'll be in for a tough challenge.
"The style of defense they try to play, especially outside, is kind of an in-your-face, bump-and-run, man-to-man press coverage, so obviously when you do that you're putting your corners out on an island there," Brees said. "In other words, you've got to have a lot of trust and confidence in them. Obviously, they have that in those guys, and they do a pretty good job of it."
Getting a complement from the only NFL quarterback last year to throw for more than 5,000 yards is a nice hat tip to the hard work that Quin and McCain have put in on the practice field. That being said, the two still have their nose to the grindstone and are working to take full advantage of their extra playing opportunities.
"You start out getting one or two plays, and you take those one or two plays and you end up getting 60 or 70 plays." Quin said. "You've got to be ready for every opportunity."
With only one starting spot open next to Bennett, you might think that the two would be in fierce competition with one another, but McCain and Quin are more than amicable. The two live together as roommates at the team's training camp hotel, and they'll often work together during and after practice to hone their skills. One of the biggest positive influences on their development has been Bennett, who not too long ago was a young rookie receiving valuable training camp tips from Robinson, his old college teammate.
"(Fred) keeps me going every day, telling me how to get better every day," McCain said "If Fred expects me to be great, I expect myself to be great."
Bennett downplayed his role as a mentor to McCain and Quin, noting that the Texans have plenty of veterans at safety in 10-year pro Nick Ferguson and seven-year vet Eugene Wilson. But whenever he sees any of his young teammates take a misstep or utilize a faulty technique, he'll do his best to give them a heads up on what they're doing wrong.
"Every time they mess up on something, on technique or something like that, I just try to be there to encourage them, tell them 'Fix this' or 'Work on that,'" Bennett said. "And they're great listeners, so that makes it easy."
Although he might be one of the youngest starters on the Texans' defense Saturday, Quin knows that the inclusiveness and assistance of veterans like Bennett already have helped the team's secondary develop the kind of cohesiveness that will be necessary to shut down top passing attacks.
"All our veteran defensive backs have been welcoming to the rookies, and they make us feel like we're part of this group, just like we've been here since they've been here," Quin said. "It's a nice brotherhood."