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Postcards from camp: Texans

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Training camp isn't much different from the regular season for the Texans. They are stationed in Houston across the street from Reliant Stadium at the same practice facilities they use all season. They practice on three full-size outdoor fields during morning workouts. In the afternoons, they typically practice inside their bubble, which boasts a full-size field covered in Field Turf.

With the heat index almost always topping 100 degrees even before the first practice ends at 10:30 a.m., players often long to move indoors. The large bubble sits right next to the outdoor fields, and players have said that it's like having a water fountain the middle of the field but you cannot drink from it.

The highlight for the players in camp is the eight practices open to fans. They had almost 5,000 fans at the first practice. And there were more than 3,000 there when Andre Johnson suffered a strained groin while running a route a week into camp.

1. Super Mario II. When Mario Williams entered last season, he was still at the center of a heated debate about whether the Texans would have been better off drafting Reggie Bush or Vince Young. He silenced his critics in 2007 by racking up 14 sacks last season -- 10 coming in the final seven games. All eyes are on him as he enters Year 3.

It looks like Williams has gotten bigger and faster in the offseason. He seems to go at a different speed than the rest of his teammates. And he looks much more relaxed than in the past, helping him play more instinctively than he ever has. He's joking around with his teammates and is playing much looser on the field.

His maturity has been praised, and coach Gary Kubiak has even said, "he is as good a worker as I've ever been around in football."

2. Injury Watch. The Texans are doing all they can to try and avoid being among the league leaders with players on the injured reserve list for the third season in a row. They are having very few contact drills and the afternoon practices are almost always just walkthroughs.

The Texans led the league in 2006 with 17 players on IR. Last year, they had 17.

The Texans will likely to start cornerback Dunta Robinson (hamstring/knee) on PUP. And they aren't having much luck with running backs Ahman Green (groin) and Chris Brown (back). Brown has already missed a week of workouts and Green will miss the upcoming week.

The Texans are hopeful when Johnson returns from his strained groin that he will be hard to keep off the field. Matt Schaub is also a big concern. He missed five starts last season and left three other games early -- all because of injuries. He is healthy now, but he has yet to prove he is durable enough to start a full 16-game slate.

3. Roughest rookie course. Rookie left tackle Duane Brown wasn't eased into the NFL. He started lining up with the first-team offense on his first day, meaning most of the time he looked across the line he was staring straight at Mario Williams. After starting camp about 11 pounds overweight and struggling with the incredibly high temperatures, Brown started fitting in better. He still has his ups and downs in practice, but he is showing tremendous progress in pass protection and the Texans have no doubt that it is directly related to the fact that he is getting tutored daily by Williams.

When Mike Sherman announced he was leaving Kubiak's staff to take over at Texas A&M, it didn't take long before another well-respected, veteran coach joined the Texans. Alex Gibbs called Kubiak and said he was ready to end retirement again -- and Kubiak welcomed him to the staff.

Gibbs became the assistant head coach/offensive coordinator and was put in charge of helping offensive line coach John Benton implement the zone blocking scheme for which Gibbs is known. The Texans have struggled in the running game the past two seasons, but are confident Gibbs' help will change that.

The players have adapted well and are adjusting to using cut blocking more often. Gibbs hasn't talked to the media in Houston, but he is doing plenty of talking at the players.

"Playing for Alex is bittersweet," left guard Chester Pitts said. "He gets after you and makes a lot of noise, but he makes you better.

"He has unbelievable energy, but it's crazy because he doesn't drink a lot of coffee, and he doesn't drink Red Bull. He just wakes up in the morning, and he's like a firecracker.

"All he wants is for us to get better and be successful. What more do you want from your coach? I love the guy, but sometimes, I'm like, 'Alex, please, chill out. I'm tired. I can hardly breathe. Do you realize how big I am? I need my water. You better leave me alone.'"

A 9-7 record is a distinct possibility. But to accomplish that, the Texans will have to prove they can win in their own division. Last season, the Texans were swept by the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts. They notched just one victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. They must also overcome a tough stretch early in which three (Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Jacksonville) of their first four games are on the road. Four of their first five games are against teams that reached the playoffs last season.

Last season, they finished a franchise-best 8-8 despite losing 17 players to IR, including running back Green and cornerback Robinson. The Texans also were without Andre Johnson for seven games and Schaub for five games.

Texans rookies have it pretty easy. Very little hazing goes on. Basically, their biggest task is carrying the shoulder pads and helmets of their teammates after a long practice ends. One day, as rookie defensive tackle Frank Okam walked away with his hands full of gear, second-year tackle Amobi Okoye walked not far behind him holding his own shoulder pads and still wearing his helmet.

When asked why Okam wasn't carrying his stuff, Okoye laughed and said he would only hand it over if someone offered. Since Okoye just turned 21 in June, it's a little awkward since the rookies are all older than him. Okoye said it'll take at least three years before he gets up the nerve to ask a "younger" player to carry his gear.

• Rookie running back Steve Slaton could be a late-round fantasy sleeper. With injuries already slowing Green and Brown, Slaton could get more carries than anticipated. He has more speed than any Texans running back, and could find his way into the end zone a few times this season.

• Special teams coordinator Joe Marciano always puts together one of the league's best special teams units. Kris Brown returns as one of the most reliable kickers in the league. Andre' Davis will return kickoffs and Jacoby Jones will return punts.

• The Texans only have four original Texans remaining on the roster -- Kris Brown, guard Fred Weary, guard Chester Pitts and cornerback DeMarcus Faggins.