HOUSTON — Jerry Hughes smiled as he looked around the practice field at the Houston Texans’ latest organized team activity.
After a dozen seasons plying his trade for the Buffalo Bills, the veteran pass rusher was back in Texas playing for the hometown team.
Jerry Hughes shining at Houston Texans OTAs
A former high school standout running back at Fort Bend Austin, Hughes grew up a short drive from NRG Stadium.
Signed to a two-year, $10 million contract that includes $5.5 million guaranteed, Hughes, 33, is expected by head coach Lovie Smith to make an impact on and off the field with his leadership and proven skills for a rebuilding Texans team coming off a 4-13 season.
“A veteran rusher, but a veteran player that’s done it the right way all his career,” Smith said following an organized team activity. “I remember when he came out of college at TCU, and he’s played at a high level. To play at a high level, you have to take care of your body. You have to be a pro.
“These are all voluntary days, and he’s out here leading. You can’t tell that he’s not a rookie trying to make his first team, and we need that in our program, veteran leadership like that.”
Hughes, a Sugar Land native who rushed for 1,412 yards and 19 touchdowns as a high school senior before concentrating full-time on defense at TCU, is back on familiar ground.
“Oh, man, it feels great, honestly,” Hughes said. “I was telling my wife this. I feel like I’m back in high school, just to be back in the city driving around. We used to play high school games at the Astrodome. Very familiar with coming out this way and things like that. Just being part of this warm environment, football city, where everyone is looking for the Texans, even though it’s baseball season, everybody still wants to know what we are going to do and how the team is looking.
“I get that just by walking through (local grocery store) H-E-B and things like that. It’s been real cool, just being close to family, high school buddies, college coaches, things like that. Not being so far or being in a different time zone, it’s been real relaxing for me being closer to family honestly.”
Hughes is accustomed to winning, playing for the AFC East champion Bills last season during their playoff run and consistently beating offensive tackles off the edge with his combination of moves, athleticism, and relentless style. He signed with the Texans shortly after Mario Addison, his former defensive end teammate in Buffalo, joined the rebuilding AFC South franchise.
“Bring that sharp mentality to this team,” Hughes said of his expectations. “We have got a very young defensive line, so myself as well as Mario Addison, we try to emphasize having that alpha-male mentality up front. We dictate what the offense is going to do, not really settling for just being in our gaps. We want to be able to go out there and make plays, be around the ball, causing turnovers. We understand the importance of the ball.
“Coach Smith talks about it every day during team meetings, so for us just being that game-changer, being that force on the field, I feel like that’s something my game has been about my whole 12 years throughout the league. So, just trying to show those guys that we can be a difference-maker on every down, really. If the offense is out there and we have four guys on the field, let’s just go out there and let’s hunt.”
A former Indianapolis Colts first-round draft pick from TCU, Hughes has 58 career sacks. He’s posted 412 career tackles (82 for loss) and 129 quarterback hits. Hughes had 18 tackles, one for a loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles, and three passes defensed last season for the AFC East champion Bills. He had 4 1/2 sacks in both 2020 and 2019 and seven sacks in 2018.
For the Bills, Hughes consistently answered the call. After being acquired in a trade for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, he started 127 of 144 games played in nine seasons for the Bills.
Hughes coming home as a veteran leader
The chance to play for defensive line coach Jacques Cesaire (his assistant defensive line coach in Buffalo), rejoin Addison, and play close to family made Hughes’ decision to sign with the Texans a comfortable one.
“I was watching one of the local channels here, just seeing his name, it threw me off,” Hughes said of Addison signing a two-year. $7.57 million deal. “I gave him a call, and he was talking scheme. I’m a big football guy. I love to hear the scheme and as far as what he was saying about Lovie was talking about, about how we get to play fast, we are not thinking, we’re reading keys, getting off the ball, that’s something that I wanted to be a part of.
“Then being home, being able to do that from home and still be a part of my kid’s life where I can take them to the swim team practice and things like that, that’s just like icing on the cake right now.”
With the Texans, Hughes can set an example for a younger team whose top pass rusher, Jon Greenard, is entering his third NFL season after recording a career-high and team-high eight sacks last season.
“Just bringing that leadership mentality and also helping them understanding the whole grind of the season, how through preseason, first month of the season, you’re going to get scout. How to change your game up. What little nuances to look for. How to do pre-snap reads. How to be able to take information from your coaches, data people.
“You know, this organization has so many people that are going to give us information. I think how to use it and play fast. I think that would be a real key point for the young guys. We have so much talent in that room. It’s just getting them to understand how great they are.”
The Bills’ defense is known for its fast, aggressive style.
Under Smith, who operates as the defensive coordinator, the Texans’ trademark 4-3 defense relies heavily on the defensive ends to create pressure. He doesn’t blitz frequently.
The defensive ends are expected to penetrate the line of scrimmage and consistently harass quarterbacks. That is right up Hughes’ alley.
“Just playing on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage is probably what’s key right now and getting those guys to understand that we are not reading,” Hughes said. “We’re fast, we are violent, we are up the field, and we want to dictate what the offense is going to do. We are not really going to let them get settled or comfortable.
“I think that’s been the whole main point and getting those guys to understand that by us playing fast and practicing fast, now it’s just going to transition to the game so by us doing in this heat, I think it will be a payoff for us.”
Quick hits from Houston Texans OTAs
The Texans are expected to have a committee approach at running back again after having one of the worst running games in the NFL last season.
They signed former Indianapolis Colts starter Marlon Mack to a one-year deal worth up to $2 million after he dealt with an Achilles injury the past two seasons.
Mack rushed for a career-high 1,091 yards in 2019 with eight touchdowns, but the Achilles injury suffered in 2020 relegated him to a reserve role behind star running back Jonathan Taylor. He rushed for 101 yards on 28 carries last season.
Mack has looked fluid and quick in drills this spring as he tries to resurrect his career.
“When we are coaching up a guy, let’s see his best, and Marlon has been a productive player in the league, and we look at his best years he’s had,” 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.”
Mack joins a backfield that includes Rex Burkhead, the Texans’ leading rusher from last season, and fourth-round rookie Dameon Pierce. Pierce plays the game with an ultra-physical style he showed off at the Senior Bowl all-star game.
“Yeah, a lot of energy,” Burkhead said. “You know, rookie coming in. He finishes plays. He’s trying to learn as much as he can as quickly as possible, and that’s what you’ve got to do as a rookie. You’ve got to learn it quick but also don’t let it get all jumbled in your mind when you get out there on the field.”
Christian Harris flashing at OTAs
Rookie linebacker Christian Harris, a third-round draft pick from Alabama who signed a four-year, $5.34 million contract, has made an impression with how quickly he runs to the football.
Harris’ final collegiate game for legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban was arguably his best. A former blue-chip recruit from Baton Rouge, La., Harris recorded three sacks, four tackles for a loss, and a forced fumble in the loss to Georgia in the national championship.
Harris had 80 tackles (12 1/2 for loss) and 5 1/2 sacks last season. He also had two forced fumbles and was a semifinalist for the Butkus and Lombardi awards. With the Texans, Harris has let his play do his talking as he tries to absorb knowledge from veteran players like linebacker Christian Kirksey, a team captain.
“Man, he’s quiet,” Kirksey said. “He doesn’t say too much, which is good because he’s a sponge. He’s soaking up all the knowledge he can and the kid is fast. He’s athletic. Obviously, coming from a great program in Alabama, I know that Nick Saban polished him well and got him ready to go, but I’ve seen flashes of him being able to go out there and contribute. Now, you don’t see that all the time in a rookie, but he’s picking it up fast, and I’m happy that he’s here.”
At 6-foot, 226 pounds, Harris aced the NFL Scouting Combine. He had a 9.05 Relative Athletic Score, an analytics grade comparing testing performance. Harris ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds with a 1.53 10-yard split and a 34 1/2 inch vertical leap.
Two seasons ago, Harris earned the starting job at WILL linebacker and had 79 tackles (seven for loss), 4 1/2 sacks, and one interception. He was a freshman All-American and freshman All-Southeastern Conference selection who had 63 tackles (7 1/2 for loss), two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble.
An All-State and All-American selection who played wide receiver, cornerback, safety, outside linebacker, and returned kicks, Harris’ team won 26 consecutive games during his junior and senior years.
“Fit the profile in terms of what we want at linebacker,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. “I don’t think anybody was more ecstatic than Lovie about that pick, but talking about a guy that’s 6-foot, 225, 230 pounds, runs 4.4. Fits the profile of what we want to do defensively at that position. Kind of a unique story as well. Kind of basically didn’t play linebacker until he showed up on the campus of Alabama.
“He was on the secondary and then moved down. That’s reflective of Nick’s genius of how he sees the game, how he uses people, where the game is going. Trying to stop offenses like Ole Miss and trying to stop teams that spread the field, have a lot of space. You need players, in turn, that can help defend that space. I would say Christian falls into that category.”
Charlie Heck impressing early
The Texans have seen steady growth from swing offensive tackle Charlie Heck.
The 6-foot-8, 313-pound former fourth-round draft pick from North Carolina started a career-high 13 games this season.
The Texans project Heck as a key backup at right tackle behind Tytus Howard and left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a former Pro Bowl selection.
At organized team activities, which are voluntary, Heck lined up with the first-team offense at right tackle. Howard was absent due to his wife giving birth to a baby boy named Tytus Jr., while Tunsil opted to work out on his own after participating in previous workout sessions at NRG Stadium.
“Progress,” Smith said. “Charlie, you know, we’re going to have two starting offensive tackles, but you need a lot more. We like our tackle position. There’s depth there. Eventually, you know, Tunsil will be in, and Tytus Howard has done an excellent job.
“But you need more than them, we want to be two-deep at every position on our football team. That’s what we are trying to get accomplished, and I think we are headed down that direction.”