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Second-year players look to make huge jump

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Second-year pro Zac Diles is the frontrunner for a starting spot at strongside linebacker.

Head coach Gary Kubiak has said that players make the biggest leap between their first and second years in the NFL. The coach doesn't have to look much farther than defensive end Mario Williams to prove his point.

Last season, the third-year pro finished tied for third in the league with a Texans-record 14 sacks. Kubiak thinks Williams' progress has made a huge impact on defensive tackle Amobi Okoye.

"The great thing he's (Okoye) got going for him is that he has a tremendous example in Mario and watching Mario do that last year," Kubiak said. "Watching Mario work out here, it's unbelievable. He (Okoye) sees what it takes, so we'll see if the takes those steps. It's asking a lot, but we are asking a lot of him."

Okoye started last season on a terror, registering four sacks in the first four games, but the defensive tackle hit the rookie wall at the end of the season. This year, the Texans are looking for Okoye to be more effective as a pass rusher and a tackle who can clog the middle and stop the run.

Okoye knows his role. Defensive line coach Jethro Franklin has been in his face, pushing him during mini-camps.

"That's his style of coaching," Okoye said. "He's always going to be in your ear, but we are just out here being coachable and just out here listening to what he has to say."

During one-on-one reps against the offensive line, Okoye showed he has the fight and technique that Franklin demands. And the defensive tackle said he will not be letting down this year.

"The Pro Bowl is my goal," Okoye said. "The Pro Bowl was my goal last year and I didn't make it, so it's going to be my goal every year."

Cornerback Fred Bennett also has set high goals. As a rookie last year, Bennett started the final eight games of the season and led the team in interceptions with three.

Bennett will shoulder the load at corner with Dunta Robinson sidelined for most of the season.

"Kubs (head coach Gary Kubiak) called me over the offseason and he let me know that I'm the No. 1 corner," Bennett said. "So I'm just ready for the challenge and, hopefully, I can spread my knowledge that I got from Dunta and the other older guys."

Bennett has been working with Antwaun Molden, a third-round draft pick, on the rookie's technique as he comes off the line of scrimmage.

"I was talking to him (Molden) earlier today, teaching him some stuff that I learned last year as a rookie," Bennett said. "I think that's important that I spread my knowledge to him as well. I think he has the chance to be a great player."

The player who could make the biggest leap in his second pro year is wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who flashed playmaking potential early last season when he returned a punt for 74 yards against the Colts. In that same game, Jones separated his shoulder and was not the same the rest of the season.

{QUOTE}Any lingering rookie timidity is long gone Jones said. He is ready to make a statement in 2008.

"I want to take something to the house this year," Jones said. "I got hot in preseason and cooled off in the regular season, so I want to put something in the end zone."

Jones has improved his receiving game by working on his deep routes with veteran wideouts Andre Johnson and André Davis.

"As a group, we are very deep, but we all have a certain thing we bring to the table," Jones said. "That's why we push each other.

"I want to be consistent – a drop here or there – I want to clean that out of my game period."

Linebacker Zac Diles, who earned the coaches' respect last year with his consistent tackling as a reserve, has been the frontrunner for a starting spot at strongside linebacker. Diles said he doesn't feel pressure lining up with DeMeco Ryans and Morlon Greenwood because he still has so much to prove.

"If coach is confident enough to put me in with the No. 1's, then I have to feel confident that I can do the job," Diles said. "So that's what I'm doing right now and right now it's my position to take.

"Every time you get on the field, you are trying to get better and be consistent in doing it. Yeah, Mario had a great leap and I would love to make the same jump, but you've go to go out there and stay consistent and get better."

For running back Darius Walker, making the team again will be an uphill battle. The Texans have five ball carriers on their roster, so it appears at least one will have to go.

But Walker has been through this situation before. He was cut last season as an undrafted rookie free agent and then worked his way back on the team and into the starting lineup at the end of the season. He finished the year second on the team in rushing yards with 264 and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.

"I think the biggest thing for me this year is that I'm comfortable with the system," Walker said. "I'm comfortable with the plays. I don't have to go through that whole learning curve, as far as getting the plays. Now, I can just work on my craft."

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