- Tania Ganguli, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- Gone are the days off for veterans just because they're veterans.
Gone are the nights when only rookies are forced to stay in the team hotel throughout training camp.
No Texans are spared from coach Bill O'Brien's sharp tongue. None are spared from running a lap for a mental error.
And you know what? The players like it.
"I love it; it's great," 12-year veteran Andre Johnson said when asked about O'Brien's demeanor. "The one thing that I like about him, and I think that’s the thing when I first met him, he’s straight up with you. He will let you know what needs to be heard. He’s not just going to tell you what you want to hear. I love his demeanor; it’s fun. I think just his whole attitude and everything he brings is a lot of fun."
Accountability has taken precedence during this first Texans training camp of the O'Brien era. What it means for the season is yet unknown, but after a 2-14 campaign in 2013, it was clear things had to change in Houston.
It's the basis from which the team that won consecutive division championships not too long ago will crawl out of the league's cellar.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
In his second season since being drafted in the first round, receiver DeAndre Hopkins' development seems to have taken a major step. The sure-handed leaping catches he made so often in college are becoming a staple of training camp. (Aside: It's crazy to think about those Clemson teams that had both Hopkins and Bills rookie Sammy Watkins. What an embarrassment of riches.) Hopkins' issues last season weren't based so much on ability as they were on precision. He seems on the right track this season. Johnson said it's clear Hopkins is playing with a lot of confidence, something that's critical for a receiver. What's even better is that his chemistry with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is improving regularly.
Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has been working through the rehab process from his sports hernia surgery in June, which has limited what he can do during practices. When the staff has let Clowney loose, though, he is a lot of fun to watch. He's quick, powerful and fast. He will absolutely be a player for whom offenses have to account. When an offense is thinking about one player, that's a big advantage for a defense. Not to mention, opposing offenses were already having to keep an eye on defensive end J.J. Watt, who hasn't missed a beat.
Two young players have made significant progress this offseason: right tackle Derek Newton and inside linebacker Justin Tuggle. Newton, the declared starter at the position, struggled last season, but based on what I've seen and heard during training camp this year, he'll be much better in pass protection this season. Tuggle was a quarterback four years ago (the successor to Cam Newton at Blinn College). The fact that he's played linebacker for such a short amount of time means even though he's improved tremendously in the past year, he still has a lot of room to grow. He's competing to be the Texans' starter next to Brian Cushing.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
The fact that Brandon Brooks is still on the Texans' non-football injury list is concerning. Brooks began training camp on the list for what appears to be a back injury. Brooks really came into his own at right guard last season. He's a player who had very high expectations because of that growth, and one the Texans need. Without him, the guard position starts to thin a bit.
The Texans' quarterback situation is tenuous right now. I like the improvement I've seen from Fitzpatrick, but what we're watching right now does not quite simulate game conditions for quarterbacks since they can't be touched during practice. Fitzpatrick's issues in the past have had a lot to do with turnovers, and the decision-making process that leads to or prevents turnovers is hard to simulate in practice. Beyond Fitzpatrick, the depth at the position is concerning. Neither Case Keenum nor Tom Savage has shown during practice that they could be viable starters in case of an injury during the season. For Savage, it's part of the learning process. Nobody expects the raw but talented rookie to be ready just yet.
Beyond a wily group of veterans, the Texans have a lot of unproven players they'll depend on defensively. When looking past Watt on the defensive line, there are more questions than answers. Who will play nose tackle? How will defensive end Jared Crick do in a starting role? Questions remain on the back end, too. This could be a big year for a lot of young players. But it's hard to know how they'll fare without any proof yet.
Whether it's linebackers coach Mike Vrabel running with his group after practice or defensive backs coach John Butler facing his players during drills to compensate for an odd number of cornerbacks, this Texans staff is particularly hands-on. It starts at the top with O'Brien, a coach who makes sure to be involved with every position on his team.
Safety D.J. Swearinger's goal this season is to create at least one game-changing play in each game, whether that's an interception, a forced fumble or even a pass breakup that leads to a turnover. Swearinger is getting started in practice, regularly intercepting the ball. And each time he does it, he runs it back to the opposite end zone, finishing with an ad-libbed celebratory flair.
Player-to-player coaching happens a lot, and Watt is embracing his growing role as a team leader in that fashion. During a recent practice, he stopped Jeoffrey Pagan during a drill to offer tips on moves to use.
A pair of receivers from Texas A&M are doing their best to make it difficult for the coaching staff to cut them. EZ Nwachukwu and Travis Labhart make very few mistakes. Nwachukwu's speed is apparent. His work on route-running has shown during this year's camp.
Undrafted rookie Chris Boswell and third-year kicker Randy Bullock are competing to be the Texans' kicker. That battle will be decided during the preseason. They've so far alternated kicking days, and both have made their fair share.