By Spenser T. Harrison
For the second part of my two-part series on what to watch out for in Texans 2009 training camp, we're going to examine at the position battles facing this young team.
Weak Side Linebacker: Zac Diles vs. Xavier Adibi
The most prominent and interesting position battle in training camp will be at the weak side linebacker spot, between Zac Diles and Xavier Adibi. The position is up for grabs following the release of Morlon Greenwood and drafting of Brian Cushing with the 15thoverall pick.
Since the Texans expect Cushing to start right away at strong side linebacker, the weak side position is vacant going into camp.
Although the Texans signed former Pro Bowler Cato June, don’t expect him to compete for the starting spot as they’ll look to develop the two young backers they have. However if both Adibi and Diles fail to impress during training camp or early season don’t be surprised if June takes over.
Diles and Abidi share a passion for the game, hard work, and the willingness to improve. But, they share little else. In fact, their uniquely different styles of play at the position is one of the reasons this position battle is so interesting.
Zac Diles saw limited action as a rookie in 2007, backing up DeMeco Ryans. However he proved to be a special teams demon, leading the Texans in tackling in that part of the game. During last years training camp Diles wowed coaches with his improvement and earned the starting job at strong side linebacker going into the 2008 season. He quickly lived up to expectations and played admirably in that role. In his nine starts he recorded 66 tackles, a forced fumble, a sack, and an interception, before being sidelined by a freak injury in practice.
Now, Diles looks to prove that he’s recovered from his injury and build on last year’s improvement.
A move to weak side could be a blessing for Diles, who is slightly undersized for the strong side position and tends to get smothered by bigger offensive lineman because of it. He does a great job of diagnosing plays and pulling the trigger. Moreover he is a superb tackler and rarely gets caught out of position. But for Diles to beat out Adibi as the starting weak side linebacker he’s going to have to prove he can be an asset in the passing game. Diles lacks the raw speed to recover when beat and has a tough time staying with smaller running backs. In addition, his size makes him a liability in coverage against tight ends.
If Diles can improve coverage of the passing game there’s no reason to believe he can’t beat out Xavier Adibi for the weak side linebacker spot. If not, he’ll serve as a worthwhile backup as well as a great addition to the Texans special teams.
Xavier Adibi was used sparingly during his rookie season before replacing Morlon Greenwood at the starting weak side linebacker position in week ten. From there he played very well racking up 35 tackles in his five starts. The highlight of his season was a 15-tackle performance in week eleven against the Colts.
Adibi continued his solid play until a groin injury in week fifteen sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
Adibi is an exceptional athlete with great agility, range, and quickness. His aggressiveness, quick first step, and sideline-to-sideline range give him the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Adibi’s relentless pursuit, mean streak, and closing speed give him the ability to deliver the big hit. Something Frank Bush is surely looking for as he hopes to add an aggression and intensity that has been lacking in the Texans defenses of the past.
In regards to the passing game Adibi is a marked improvement over Zac Diles.
Unlike Diles, Adibi can stay stride for stride with most running backs in man coverage, and has shown the type of recovery speed Diles lacks. Moreover he catches the ball well and shows sound body control when adjusting to tipped passes, giving him the necessary tools to be a playmaker in coverage.
Since both Diles and Adibi are young and relatively inexperienced look for this battle to dictate not only who starts in 2009, but also who remains on the team well into the future. If inexperience is a problem or injuries intervene the Texans have a solid insurance policy in veteran, Cato June.
Likely Winner: With new defensive coordinator Frank Bush looking to improve the intensity and aggressiveness of his young defense, Xavier Adibi’s superior athleticism, better coverage skills, and high motor should win him the starting job over Zac Diles at weak side linebacker. However the Texans coaching staff won’t afford him much time to adjust to the starting position with Diles waiting in the wings.
Punter: Matt Turk vs. Justin Brantly
Contrary to popular belief. punters are in fact football players, so I thought it necessary to give them some love. The Texans will open up training camp with two punters on the roster in Justin Brantly and Matt Turk.
This competition for the starting punter is exemplary of a classic NFL training camp battle between a veteran (Matt Turk) in the twilight of his career and a rookie (Justin Brantly) looking to establish himself. At seventeen years his elder, it will be on Matt Turk to prove to the Texans coaching staff that he still has what it takes.
Turk is a savvy veteran who’s going into his 14th season as an NFL starter, earning three Pro Bowl appearances in that time. Save for one appalling moment, (LINK) Turk played admirably the last two years as the Texans starter. Although Turk’s average yards per kick slightly improved from 2007, it marked the first time since 2002 that he failed to drop twenty or more punts inside the twenty-yard line. At 40 years of age it’s no surprise the Texans would begin to look elsewhere.
So it didn’t come as a shock to many when the Texans signed undrafted rookie free agent Justin Brantly from Texas A&M, on May 6th, 2008. Brantly was a four-year starter with the Aggies and held a career average of 44.3 yards per punt – becoming the only Aggie player to average at least 43 yards per kick for four straight years. During his freshman year Brantly broke Shane Lechler’s freshman record by averaging 43.2 yards per kick. He ended his career at College Station ranked as the #3 punter in the country with an average of 45.7 yards per kick.
Brantly looks to transition his college success into the NFL and earn the starting job for the Texans 2009 season.
Likely Winner: The truth is Justin Brantly doesn’t necessarily need to beat out Matt Turk in training camp to win the starting job. If he can manage to just perform on par with Turk expect him to win the job due to his youth and smaller contract.
Cornerback: Jacque Reeves vs. Fred Bennett.
Unless Dunta Robinson’s current contract grumblings take a turn for the worse, look for a competition between Jacques and Fred Bennett for the starting cornerback position opposite Robinson. Regardless of who wins this contest, both players need to improve their games if the Texans hope to turn around a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed last year.
The Texans secondary is without question the weakest area of the defense and it was afforded much help in the off-season. Although 4thround pick Glover Quin has performed extremely well during OTA’s, coaches are hesitant to fed rookie cornerbacks to the wolves. Furthermore the Texans might look to use Quin primarily at the safety spots this season.
The Texans signed Jacque Reeves last season following a four-year stint with the Cowboys. In the wake of Dunta Robinson’s injury, Reeves started 16 games last year with the Texans. While he might not have played well enough to justify his 2008 salary of $7 million dollars he grabbed four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and totaled 52 tackles.
Reeves has above average straight-line speed, but modest quickness. That leaves him susceptible to getting beat by good route runners. In regards to run defense, Reeves shows sure tackling and aggression for a cornerback. Overall he’s a solid corner who shows more ability when utilized in man coverage.
If Reeves continues to improve as he has in the last two years he could prove to be a worthwhile starter, and, at worst, he is an above average third corner.
Fred Bennett was something of a steal for the Texans in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. He ended up playing in fourteen games and starting in eight after the injury to former college teammate Dunta Robinson. He finished his rookie season 6th overall on the team in tackles and first in interceptions.
In fact, according to Scientific Football, he had the lowest yards per attempt of any cornerback in the league that year with over 60 balls thrown his way.
As a cornerback Bennett has excellent size, speed, and ball skills. He’s shown he’s best from the press alignment where he can utilize his bump and run skills. Although he lacks the aggression and tackling of Reeves in run support he will come up to make a tackle.
Expectations were high for Bennett going into 2008, but he hit the proverbial sophomore slump and wasn’t really able to build on his rookie performance. Once Dunta Robinson came back in week seven of this year, Bennett was relegated to third corner in favor of Jacque Reeves. Bennett now needs to prove to Texans coaches that last year was an aberration.
Likely Winner: Following the disappointing 2008 season, look for Fred Bennett to come back strong and beat out Jacque Reeves for the starting role opposite Dunta Robinson. His ability to make plays on the ball and huge upside for the future will likely make him the choice of the Texans coaching staff. Moreover Bennett’s 6’1 frame is a huge asset against the ever-growing numbers of tall receivers coming into the NFL.