Houston Texans training camp observations: How Marlon Mack, Dameon Pierce impact a Texans running game in flux

Marlon Mack has regained trust in his leg, and Dameon Pierce flashed his downhill rushing style in today's Houston Texans training camp observations.

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.”

Pharaoh Brown eyes big deal

Pharaoh Brown thinks as big as his tall stature, eyeing a potential breakthrough season to surpass or equal his large frame.
Toward that goal, the Texans’ physically gifted has gotten into dramatically better shape.
Brown played last season at 280 pounds, but has gotten down to a lean 262 pounds and a much lower body-fat percentage through a diligent exercise regimen that includes Pilates, hot yoga and weightlifting and a much stricter diet.
The changes have paid dividends already. Brown has caught several touchdown passes since the start of training camp and has been moving much faster. The 6-foot-6 former Pac-12 standout indicated his body-fat percentage is down to 14.9 percent from 18 percent last season. His goal for the first game of the season: 14.1 percent and lower during the season.
“I mean, I changed everything,” Brown said Sunday. “After the season, it was just a full change. I always did like Pilates and stuff like that, but I mean, I was a fat guy last year. One of the lineman just was like, ‘I’m proud of you, man. You were a big o-line tight end last year and now you’re out there catching balls.’
“My diet was healthy, but it was the small stuff. I eat healthy, but I bathe all my meat with Sweet Baby Ray’s (barbecue sauce), you know what I mean. So, it was all the sugar and high fructose corn syrup you don’t really notice. You’re like, oh, I’m eating healthy but I’ve got all these sauces and stuff. That really played a part, the small details that really set it apart.”
How did he lose the weight? Brown followed the advice of director of team wellness Ladd Harris, the team nutritionist about putting cleaner fuel in his body. Brown has the occasional cheat meal, but he mostly eats healthy.
“I was getting on the scale and the weight wasn’t changing,” Brown said. “Then I came here, and it really was just like trust the process. I really leaned on our people here, Ladd and everybody, and I just kept doing what they were saying and he just kept saying, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. It was kind of like when I got back, it just happened. I just credit the process and the support of the people here.”
Why make all the changes and increase his dedication? Pride, and financial goals.
Signed to a one-year, $3 million fully guaranteed contract, Brown’s deal includes a $1 million signing bonus, with a $2 million guaranteed salary, $500,000 in per game active roster bonuses, playtime incentive to reach up to $4 million.

Pharaoh Brown makes big changes

Brown wants to earn a big contract, something like Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku’s four-year, $56.75 million contract extension. That would require Brown piling up huge numbers after catching just 23 passes for 171 yards on 39 targets last season, but he’s set his ambitions on doing much better. That’s what Brown told a teammate.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, I got a new financial advisor and they told me the blocking tight end gets the minimum,'” Brown said. “I’m trying to get a David Njoku deal after this year, so we have to catch a lot more balls. A lot of that went into it and now I’m right where I want to be.
“I want to go out there and be me. I don’t have any certain expectations. My expectations are to win a lot of games and get wealthy doing it. So I want to win a lot of meaningful games and I want to get wealthy. I want to have generational wealth. Everything falls right into those two categories for me.”
A former undrafted free agent from Oregon who overcame a gruesome leg injury in college that nearly cost him his leg, Brown has 39 career receptions for 361 yards and two touchdowns. The worst part about his season: leading the Texans in penalties last year.
He was highly disappointed with how he performed for a 4-13 squad last year.
“I learned a lot last season,” Brown said. “What I took from it was just my mental, so after the season, I did a lot of stuff, just getting my mind right, getting my body right, just getting everything right. Last year, was not one of my best years. I really just came out just a whole totally different player. I think it was a learning lesson, and you kind of go through that, everything. You have some kind of setbacks and it’s kind of helped propel me to where I’m at now.
“It’s a mental thing: me versus me. I’m definitely way faster. I joke with the tight ends because I’ve got the fastest time right now in camp. I’m waiting for them to beat it but they are not going to beat it yet because everybody’s legs are heavy right now.”
Brown could emerge as a pivotal player for the Texans. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton loves to utilize tight ends. Brown has a lot of chemistry with quarterback Davis Mills. He’s been a constant presence in red-zone drills. The only blocking tight end who comes close to getting as much push as Brown is Antony Auclair, who’s sidelined with a right knee injury.
Brown has already earned a starting job.
“Well, just I’m talking about just Pharaoh in general, he’s our starting tight end, and he’s a Y tight end,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “He can block, big body. You see him make catches every day. We’ll have a big role for him.”
Smith had four catches for 67 yards in the first game of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he didn’t build on the momentum gained in the first game.
Watching himself, Brown was disappointed.
“Last year, just watching myself on film, I was moving like molasses,” Brown said. “I wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t explosive. Right now, I’m 262 and feel good, feeling fast. Like I said, it was all part of the plan. At this level when you’re blocking, you get minimum deals, you know what I mean, blockers get minimum deals in this league.
“I’m trying to win a lot of games and get rich — get wealthy, not rich, get wealthy doing this. You have to catch the ball to get wealthy. The blocking is still in my toolbox and that’s what sets me apart because I can block, I can still line up in the backfield and I also can split out and take advantage of corners. I’m running all kind of routes. My route tree has grown.”
Playing for Hamilton, the replacement for former offensive coordinator Tim Kelly could pay off for Brown and the entire offense. They like what he has planned as far as game strategies and play-calling.
“Pep is a smart guy,” Brown siad. “He puts us in a lot of good situations and it’s just building on top of that. Yesterday in the red zone, I caught the fade just one-on-one with a small corner. Today, we came back and hit him with a slant. So now that road is growing, being able to flex out and take advantage of little, small DBs.”

Different vibe with Lovie Smith

A year after a losing season under David Culley, the Texans promoted Smith. He’s a former NFL Coach of the Year and a Super Bowl coach with the Chicago Bears.
“I mean, it’s a great vibe,” Brown said. “The vibe’s definitely different from last year. Everybody’s buying in. Lovie commands a certain respect, a certain discipline. You know, he’s kind of cool, laid-back but he’s kind of like your father, like you know, you aren’t going to really try him, you know what I mean. Even though he’s calm and cool, it’s that respect factor that he has.”
Brown has a lot of support at home to lean on. His wife, Celeste, and two young sons are fixtures at practice in the family section. His mother visited practice Sunday. She even proudly filmed Brown’s media session.
“My family is awesome,” Brown said. “You kind of deal with so much outside of here that plays a part of you being on the field, and I mean, my wife was with me every step of the way, and going through the same things that I was doing to help me get to where I’m at in my mindset. So we kind of take a family approach to everything and they all do the same thing I do. 
“My mom, she also went on like a retreat with me as well. She’s over there video recording. So it helped her because she just moved to Houston and going through some stressful things and I mean, anything that I’m doing, I like to bring my family on to get the same experience because no matter what you do, everybody is going through some mental stress and it’s really good to take self-care.”

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.”

Aaron Wilson is the NFL Insider for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL.

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