The last time Connor Barwin was on the field at Reliant Stadium, it wasn't a pretty sight. He was on his back writhing in pain, his right ankle dangling from his leg a way right ankles aren't meant to dangle.
That was Week 1 of last season, and it's a far cry from where Barwin is now. Almost fully recovered from that gruesome injury, Barwin was back in Houston on Monday to check in with the Texans' medical staff. He has spent the offseason rehabbing at the University of Cincinnati, lifting weights and running with the UC football team while taking classes toward his degree.
"It's going really well," Barwin said of his rehab. "I've been running for six weeks now, and it's getting better every week. I think (in) another month, two months, I'll be full-go. The strength's almost there. There's just a little bit at the top end that I can tell is not quite 100 percent yet, and that's normal."
If Barwin does make a full recovery by the start of May, that'll give him plenty of time to regain his speed and explosiveness by the start of the 2011 season.
That's a good thing, because the Texans have big plans for their 2009 second-round pick. Barwin, who will be an outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense, was primed for a breakout season in 2010 before he was injured in the first quarter against the Colts on Sept. 12.
"To be honest with you, people have no idea how big of an injury that was for our team," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "We had big expectations for Connor. Our defense had built a bunch of packages for him going into the season, and we lose him before the first half of the first game. It's funny: It wasn't talked about very much as we went through the season as we struggled on defense, but I can tell you today it was huge.
"We have high expectations for him. He's a very big part of the future of this franchise, and of Wade's defense also."
In 2009, Barwin led all rookie defensive ends with 4.5 sacks and was a standout performer for the Texans on special teams. He bulked up significantly in the offseason that followed in the hopes of becoming an every-down player.
"He had made big strides during the offseason and during training camp," defensive line coach Bill Kollar said. "We really saw him getting better, playing stronger, the whole works, and then to end up doing what he did in that first game really turned out to be pretty disheartening. We were figuring that he'd really give us a lot of good pass rush last year, and when we lost him in the first game, it really ended up hurting us quite a bit. So we're hoping that he's back at full-go this year.
"He's moving to outside linebacker and then he'll be a defensive end in nickel situations rushing the passer, but we hope that he can get back and make those big strides that we were hoping for last year."
Barwin's athleticism and quickness make him a natural fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He was a walk-on basketball player at Cincinnati and played tight end for his first three seasons in college. As a senior, he moved to defensive end and set an NCAA record for first-year defensive players with 12 sacks.
Barwin wowed NFL scouts at the 2009 Senior Bowl, where he worked out at tight end and defensive end. He also put on a show at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, running a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash and posting a vertical jump of 40.5 inches.
"The guy's really got outstanding movement, very fluid and stuff, and he's a smart guy, so I don't think for him it'll be much of a transition," Kollar said. "It always takes a little bit of time to get it when you're playing a new position and learning new stuff, but I don't think he'll have a problem at all."
Barwin does have some experience standing up and dropping into coverage – "at Cincinnati a little bit," in some games as a rookie and in practice last year before he got hurt. He knows there's a learning curve ahead, but he's "extremely excited" about moving to his new position and playing under Phillips.
"This is a huge opportunity for me," he said. "I'm going to make sure I do everything I can this offseason to be ready to do what I'm asked to do in this defense. I honestly can't wait to get started. It's something that is just a huge opportunity for me, to be playing outside linebacker. That's what a lot of people feel fits my skill set better, so hopefully those people are right."
Once Barwin is medically cleared, he plans to resume the rigorous boxing training that he did last offseason. For now, it's all rehab – and two more weeks of upper-level history classes – until his ankle and calf are back to 100 percent.
"I can't say enough about how much we're counting on him, but the key right now is him getting back to total health," Kubiak said. "He's not quite there yet; it's still going to take a few more months. But he's been working at it. He works hard at what he does, works hard in the classroom, loves to play. I'm looking forward to him coming back."