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Vonta Leach: The Texans' Hammer


EDITOR'S NOTE:* This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Aug. 22, 2009, for Houston's preseason game at home against the New Orleans Saints.
If fullback Vonta Leach is talking about his skills as an NFL runner, he's smiling and joking. It's when he stops smiling and starts blocking that signals danger for Texans opponents.

Leach can be heard at most practices pleading with his coaches to give him the ball. They know he's just making chatter.

"He's always telling me how one day in college, he rushed for 150 yards, but he can't seem to find the tape where he claims it happened,'' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said with a laugh. "He says he's ready for the rock. Hopefully, it doesn't get to that point."

Leach brings high energy, constant banter and a brutish blocking style to practice and games. There is a reason he's called "The Hammer" by teammates.

At 6-0, 265 pounds, Leach won't be mistaken for a small-hipped tailback with sprint speed who leaves defensive backs frozen by his moves. Leach has more the appearance of a linebacker, a position that he played during his first two seasons at East Carolina.

Leach is now wearing a big smile.

"Maybe this year, I'll get in Kub's (coach Gary Kubiak) ear and get him to give me the ball," he said.

The truth is, Leach probably will average as many rushes over the rest of his NFL career as he has so far. That total to date is three rushes for three yards in five NFL seasons. He's averaging less than a yard a year and loving it.

The reason Leach doesn't get the ball more often is because if he is carrying the ball, he's not blocking. And Leach's brick-wall blocks are a big part of what makes the Texans' offense go.

The smile is gone now.

"It's not about me and it's not about individuals," Leach said. "If the team wins and we go places, then everything else takes care of itself. My job is to make a hole for the running back. I don't get a lot of the glory. You'll never see me running 50 yards down the field catching a long pass.

"But if the running back has a good day and the offense has a good day, that's a reflection on the fullback."

Leach also wasn't smiling when he declared the day before training camp that it was a "playoffs or bust" season for the Texans.

"I haven't changed my mind," he said. "I'm sticking by that."

Leach has spent his unlikely five-year pro career making teammates smile and opponents wince. He came into the league without fanfare as an undrafted free agent, and that was enough to get him riled up.

"Everyone wants to get drafted; they all believe they can play in this league,'' Leach said. "I just wanted to prove people were wrong, that I should have been drafted. But hey, I had to make the best of the situation."

Leach started proving that he could play in the NFL on the Packers' practice squad in 2004. He was promoted to the active roster late in the season and played mostly on special teams in the final six games.

{QUOTE}He made his pro debut at fullback on Christmas Eve that season with two second quarter carries in the Packers' division-clinching victory at Minnesota. By the end of the 2005 season, Leach had started five games for the Packers and caught six passes.

The offensive stats haven't piled up since then – unless you count bruises and broken bones delivered to the opposition.

The Packers released Leach after the first game of the 2006 season, and the Texans picked him up off of waivers. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Although the stats still haven't piled up, Leach has found a home.

Leach quickly became a fan and player favorite as a knockdown blocking fullback. And he has a good ratio of rushes to touchdowns – two of his three running plays have been good for six points.

His biggest offensive threat other than as a lead blocker has been receiving on outlet passes. Leach has 43 receptions for 272 yards and three touchdowns in three seasons with the Texans.

Running backs coach Chick Harris is smiling now.

"Vonta is our secret weapon," Harris said. "We unleash him sometimes near the goal line or every now and then when we need a key third down. We keep the handoffs to a minimum so that when he explodes on them, we've got 100 percent efficiency."

Now, Harris is serious.

"His importance to this team is to make room for the running game and then being strong in the passing game when the balls are thrown to him," Harris said. "Key balls, key passes, that's his deal. When you look at Steve Slaton's totals, that's Vonta. He's making the way, along with the offensive line."

Slaton had a sensational rookie season. He finished with a franchise-record 1,282 rushing yards, which led all NFL rookie running backs. He ran for nine touchdowns and set another team record with 4.8 yards per carry.

Slaton is quick to acknowledge Leach's part in his outstanding season.

"He's a big part of my success," Slaton said. "He's there opening holes for me every day. I know I don't have to worry about that first guy coming through. I know that he's going to take care of him, and he might get two."

The Texans' offense ranked third in the league in yards in 2008. Quarterback Matt Schaub had his first 3,000-yard passing season. Houston's 4,267 passing yards set a franchise record. The team's 1,846 rushing yards were the second most in Texans history.

Leach's name isn't beside any of those stats. Still, Schaub knows his fullback is a big part of the offensive success.

"How much time do you have?" Schaub said when asked about Leach's value to the Texans' offense. "He's the type of dude you want as your fullback. He just wants to go hit people, and if he can get the ball every once in a while, he's a happy camper.

"He keeps it fun. He has a high energy level and he just plays. He's a vocal guy. He talks a lot, but he also shows you by example by the way he plays."

As much as Leach's coaches and teammates talk about his blocking ability, they also look to him as a respected leader. Leach was voted a team captain for five games last season.

"Being voted team captain makes me feel good, knowing that the coaches and my peers respect me," Leach said. "They know what I go out and do every day when they turn on the tape."

Slaton thinks working with Leach will be even better this season.

"It's going to be a good year together," Slaton said. "I'm going to know more how he's going to block, how he's going into the hole and how I'm going to run off of him."

Leach felt the communication with his tailback improve as last season progressed.

"Sometimes, we'd get into a game and I'd tell him to follow me," Leach said. "Other times, he'd see something, and he's the running back – that's why he makes the high dollars and gets drafted and I didn't – so we'll do what he sees. But that's working together. I've got confidence in him, and he's got confidence in me."

Slaton might have a big contract in his future, but Leach is no longer a struggling practice squad player, either.

Before the 2007 season, Leach signed an offer sheet from the New York Giants for a multi-year deal as a restricted free agent. The Texans wasted little time in matching the offer and keeping their Hammer in Texas.

The Texans haven't been disappointed in their investment.

"He's energized and he's got a great attitude," Harris said. "He's a team player and he's a great leader, too, because when things get tough, the tough get going, and he's one of our toughest guys. If there's a battle, he's going to be in the middle of it."

Leach spent several days away from practice early in training camp attending the funeral of his grandmother, Catherine Smith, in Rowland, N.C.

"Other than my mom, that's the person I was really close to coming from a single parent home," Leach said. "She was like my father, the backbone of the family. It was a tremendous loss, something that is tough to deal with, but something that goes on throughout life. I've got to keep going."

Leach expects to "get the rock" a few times this season, help the Texans to reach the playoffs and honor the memory of his grandmother.

Now *that *will make him smile.

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 teams.

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