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Veterans don't let up


Defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina chuckles when he thinks about how much OTAs have changed since he entered the NFL in 1993. When the 38-year-old began his career, players wore shorts and hats and practices were considered much more optional than they are now.

"We really didn't have OTAs," Zgonina said. "We had maybe two days a week when we came on the field, and that was just the rookies and first-year guys. The old guys never came out here.

"It's completely night and day from when I came in. I laugh with these guys texting people with their two-way pagers and all this other stuff. Shoot, all we had was a calling card when I was a rookie. We didn't have cell phones."

Times certainly have changed. The Texans are in the middle of their third week of organized team activities, and every player can be accounted for on the field. The coaches are going through playbook installs and even pumping in crowd noise.

{QUOTE}Zgonina jokes that he gets tired of going through offseason practices year after year, but he knows that he needs to make sure he is in the best shape possible for training camp.

"It's getting kind of old, kind of like me," Zgonina said. "But you just try not to go through the motions. You try to get in shape and get ready for fall camp."

The 16th-year pro has to get his body ready to compete against much younger talent at his position. The Texans drafted defensive tackle Frank Okam in the fifth round as a run stopper who can clog the middle. Second-year pro Amobi Okoye, age 20, and Travis Johnson, age 27, most likely will return to the starting lineup.

However, Zgonina, who roomed with general manager Rick Smith when the two played at Purdue, doesn't look like he has lost a step. The defensive tackle with robust legs prides himself on fitting in extra cardio workouts and sprinting with the running backs to the end zone after each rep he gets in practice.

"I'm just trying to embarrass the guy for going half speed," Zgonina said. "I'm going full speed. He's only going half speed. It's part of the conditioning of it, because we don't run afterward. I'm only out there for like three or four plays, so I try to go full speed on every play to get a little workout in.

"I don't lift for strength anymore. I just lift to stay healthy. I'm too old to be out there banging with the young guys, so I just try to be in the best condition I can."

Tight end Mark Bruener, a 14th-year pro, said the intensity of OTAs has changed the way he conditions during the offseason.

"You really have to concentrate on making sure that your body is right," Bruener said. "You've got to start training earlier in the offseason and pace yourself and not go too hard too soon and find a way to get your body as ready as it can be for training camp in July.

"You have to go out and treat every day as a new day. You try to improve as an individual. You try to help the other guys improve as a team. Every day is a battle, and you have to go out there and be mentally prepared each day."

Bruener said that longevity in the league comes down to three things: finding a niche on a team, playing in a system that complements your niche and being consistent in your position. His niche has been blocking.

"I've been known over the years to be a pretty good blocker at the tight end position," Bruener said. "Occasionally, they'll throw me a pass here or there and I'll catch those as well. If you can find a guy who can secure the edge for your running game, it can be very helpful."

Connecting with the younger players has not been a problem for Bruener. Instead, he has embraced a leadership role on the offense.

"I'm quite a bit older than these guys, and each year it seems they get younger and younger," Bruener said. "But you can connect because you have that common bond of football.

"My role within this organization is to try to lead these young guys and get them steered in the right direction. A guy like Owen (Daniels) and Joel (Dreessen), they don't need much leadership. They really are great players and I really enjoy trying to give them little things here or there to try to help them be that much better."

Defensive end N.D. Kalu has taken a similar approach with the young linemen in his unit. The 12th-year pro, who finished third on the team in sacks last season, has served as a mentor for Okoye and defensive end Mario Williams.

Now, Kalu is rehabbing a knee injury and hoping he is healthy enough to make the roster in 2008.

"Every year, I've been in a situation where I pretty much have to make the team, all my 12 years," Kalu said. "So when I'm out here, I try to learn as much as I can because the guys I'm competing against, I want to make sure mentally I'm ahead of them. Physically, I feel like everything will just take care of itself."

The Texans veterans say they don't take a moment of playing time for granted these days.

"I'm really lucky," Zgonina said. "I'm going into my 16th year, and you see a lot of guys come and go. You've just got to enjoy every day."

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