NOW THAT he'sbeen switched back to defensive end, Jason Babin is delighted to be eatinglarger portions again. As a rookie in 2004, the first-round pick out of WesternMichigan had to streamline his diet to convert from college end to NFL outsidelinebacker in a 3--4 defense. The move paid off as he started every game thatyear. But new Texans coach Gary Kubiak has discarded the 3--4 in favor of the4--3, and Babin is a prime candidate to start at one defensive end spot. Thatmeans he gets to bulk back up. Instead of five small meals per day--"stupiddiet," Babin scoffs--he has five big meals. Since last year he's putroughly 20 pounds on his 6'2" frame and is up to 267, right where he wantsto be.
But Babin isn'tthe only one excited about the change in defensive schemes and the prospect ofplaying end. Teammate Antwan Peek, a 2003 third-rounder out of Cincinnati, hadalso been switched from end to linebacker by Houston, and at 6'3" and 258pounds he'd like nothing more than to shed his status as an NFL tweener andreturn to the front four. The winner of this competition, the most heated inthe Texans' camp, will join rookie end Mario Williams, the No. 1 pick in the2006 draft, in making the Texans' defensive front vastly improved. Williamswill play primarily on the strong side, so Babin or Peek would be taking theweakside position. "He wants the job, I want the job," said Peek aftera practice last week at Reliant Park. "It's all about who's going to takethe job."
When Babinarrived in '04, it was Peek's job that he took at starting left outsidelinebacker. (Houston had traded second-, third- and fourth-round picks toTennessee to move into position to take Babin.) This summer Babin has practicedmore with the first unit at defensive end than Peek, but the competition isclose. "It's a very nice changeup," defensive coordinator Richard Smithsays. "One is a little bit bigger, but they're both playing very, verywell." The silver lining is that the loser will get significant snaps on aheavily rotated line. And in third-and-long situations Houston plans to putBabin and Peek at the ends and move Williams inside.
The positionchange has been cathartic for Babin following a miserable 2005 season. Duringtraining camp last summer he suffered a slight tear in his right labrum, but hecontinued to play through the injury. After two games Babin was demoted,ostensibly because of mental mistakes. The shoulder had also gotten worse, andBabin missed the next four games. "I wasn't really happy the last fewyears," he says. "I tried and tried. Compared to what I was doing lastyear, [defensive end] is pretty simple."
Peek, who's moreexplosive than Babin, has tried to bulk up to 265 without success. He blamesexcessive fluid loss during workouts, a notion that was confirmed in April whenhe flew to Gatorade's Sports Science Institute in Barrington, Ill., for specialtesting. Riding a machine for one hour, Peek lost 1.5 liters of fluid--anamount that Gatorade scientists projected as a loss of more than three litersof fluid in a two-hour practice.
In the battlebetween these two rejuvenated Texans, there's still plenty of sweating todo.