HOUSTON — Marlon Mack contemplated the question for a moment before reflecting on how much he trusts the Achilles tendon he ruptured two years ago while playing for the Indianapolis Colts.
As the veteran running back and former 1,000-yard rusher seeks to resurrect his career with the Houston Texans, he’s displaying signs that his old explosiveness is returning. Mack appeared somewhat hesitant at the start of training camp, feeling his way through drills and not flashing as much of a burst as he did during the spring.
Now, Mack is showing that he has regained faith in his leg. That could pay major dividends for the Texans as they try to reboot the worst running game in the NFL from last season.
Houston Texans RB Marlon Mack trusts his leg again
“I definitely feel like I’m there again,” Mack said. “Last year, I didn’t get that chance to show myself. But in the few games that I did, I felt that confidence in myself. But now, I’ve actually just got to go out there and do it again. I feel good, man.
“Every day I’m showing that explosion. I feel it in my cuts, and every day I keep going out there and keep doing it. I feel like my trust has always been 100% since last year. Just always had that trust, just didn’t get the chance to show it again. But now, I’m actually going to keep on it, keep that trust in it.”
For Mack, every practice and this prime opportunity to become a featured back again are significant. Embracing a fresh start after being limited to a combined seven games, 32 carries, and 127 yards over the past two years due to a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the first game of the 2020 season, Mack is determined to capitalize on his chance to energize the Texans’ lackluster running game and right his career.
It’s an entirely different feeling than the pain and doubt Mack experienced after his right leg crumpled underneath him while catching a pass from Philip Rivers two seasons ago. Mack immediately grabbed the back of his ankle, writhing in pain on the ground. He was helped off the field by a trainer. On the bench, while being examined by a team doctor, Mack shook his head upon the realization that he had sustained the first serious injury of his career.
After rushing for a combined 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns across 2018 and 2019, Mack made a full recovery by last year. By then, though, he was behind Jonathan Taylor, a gifted All-Pro runner who rushed for an NFL-high 1,811 yards and 17 TDs last season. Mack requested a trade, but nothing materialized. As a free agent, he signed a one-year, $2 million contract that included a $250,000 signing bonus to join the Texans.
“I feel great, man,” Mack said. “Body getting used to everything, used to the banging and everything. Legs feel great. Sore, definitely sore right about now, but just getting used to playing football again.”
The Texans have welcomed Mack’s arrival and are encouraged by how he’s performed so far. He joined a team that ranked last in the NFL with 1,422 rushing yards last season and a 3.4 average per carry. Rex Burkhead was the leading rusher with just 427 yards. Mack is enjoying his new surroundings in Houston, despite the franchise being fresh off a 4-13 record.
“Marlon has been a productive player in the league, and we look at his best years he’s had,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “Sometimes you need a change, change of scenery, a new team. I know he’s fit in well with our group. We feel like we have a plan for him, and we like the running back position, not just him.”
Dameon Pierce has downhill running style
Mack faces competition from rookie running back Dameon Pierce, an aggressive fourth-round draft pick from Florida who plays the game with a hard-nosed approach. Pierce once scored a touchdown for the Gators after having his helmet knocked off. He didn’t stop going forward.
Pierce has been mentored by Mack and Burkhead. He has generated the most big plays of any running back at camp and always runs behind his shoulder pads, maintaining a low center of gravity.
“He’s a hungry learner, so he always asked the questions, man, makes sure he’s always on point,” Mack said. “That’s why he’s picking up really well. That’s one thing you need as a young running back; ask questions, make sure you get everything from coaches, and just be well on yourself. And that’s what he’s doing.”
The 5’10”, 218-pounder rushed for 574 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three scores. As a junior, he rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 156 yards and one score.
“He plays with a lot of joy,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said during the draft. “He plays with a lot of fight. He plays with a lot of toughness, and his personality, I would say, transfers over to the football field.”
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said Pierce “has a chance to be an explosive playmaker for us” while emphasizing that he has to keep improving at pass blocking. Pierce has caught the football smoothly out of the backfield.
“I took bits and pieces of everybody’s game and molded it to my own style, which is violent,” Pierce said. “I like to fight for my yards. I like to punish the defense. I don’t like taking hits. I like giving hits.”
Derek Stingley Jr. to miss first preseason game
Texans rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. isn’t expected to play in a preseason game Saturday night against the New Orleans Saints.
The first-round draft pick was also a nonparticipant in drills as a designated day off. It’s all according to the plan the Texans have established for the former LSU standout as maintenance for his surgically-repaired foot. Stingley is on schedule for the first game of the regular season and has excelled during full-team drills at times.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Lovie Smith said. “All of our players won’t play, I’ll say that, the first preseason game. We still haven’t determined, of course, how much. A lot of times, when guys are coming off a major injury, we may wait a little bit, but we’ll decide that as much as anything for Stingley. You see he’s out here practicing every day. He’s right on schedule.”
Texans center Justin Britt is regularly given veteran’s days off because of a previous knee injury. “We have a plan for a few of our guys that are coming off injuries,” Smith said. “It’s a scheduled day off for Derek, Justin Britt, and a few others, but as you can see, the days we’ve asked him to play, he’s performed well and getting better. Learning, growing, love what he’s doing.”
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Texans’ injury updates
Several players didn’t practice, including rookie offensive guard Kenyon Green (knee), rookie linebacker Christian Harris (hamstring), tight end Antony Auclair (right knee), cornerback Kendall Sheffield, offensive tackle Tytus Howard (COVID-19), wide receiver Drew Estrada (leg), defensive end Rasheem Green, and wide receiver Chester Rogers (ankle). Long snapper Jon Weeks has returned to practice after missing a few days for personal reasons.
Kurt Hinish is an undrafted free agent to watch
Texans rookie defensive tackle Kurt Hinish is an undrafted free agent who has caught the eye of the coaching staff and personnel department.
At 6’2″, 300 pounds, Hinish plays with a lot of power and technique at the line of scrimmage. The former Notre Dame standout has bench pressed 225 pounds 31 times with a 4.96 40-yard dash. He had 81 career tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks for the Fighting Irish. The Texans invested $85,000 guaranteed in the Pittsburgh native to sign him.
“You know, right now, training camp guys have shown up,” Smith siad. “They flash from time to time. Now it’s about the preseason games. Preseason is getting ready to come up. We are going to play a lot of those guys we don’t know about, and kind of see how they play in the game. Love everything that Kurt’s done.”
Quick hits from Texans training camp
Chad Beebe, a former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver whose father, Don Beebe, played for the Buffalo Bills and scored a touchdown in their epic comeback win over the Houston Oilers, is making a strong impression at camp with his sound hands and consistent routes.
“The greatest comeback. I know there’s some hard feelings there, so I get a little leery of talking about it,” Beebe said. “But it’s hard not to be proud. My dad was a big part of that team, and that was a big upset. It’s weird now being here in Houston. Everything is coming full circle. I’m so happy to be here. I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity.”
Ogbo Okoronkwo is carving out a role as a pass rusher in the Texans’ 4-3 defense. With his speed off the edge and polished spin move, the Houston native and former Super Bowl champion with the Los Angeles Rams figures into the Texans’ game plan.
“He’s on record of being a pass rusher in the league,” Smith said of the former Oklahoma standout and Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year. “I mean, that’s why we signed him, you know, to bring another local guy back home. He’s a legitimate pass rusher, so we’ll have a plan for him.”