Houston Texans: Travis Labhart

HOUSTON -- Texans coach Bill O'Brien didn't announce a backup quarterback Friday, but he did resolve one competition.

Keshawn Martin will be the Texans' kick and punt returner this season.

"He’s done a good job," O'Brien said. "... He’s a guy that’s one of the most improved players on our team. He’s got to continue to go that way. He came back in training camp, whether it was his return ability or his play on offense, he’s done a really good job of taking what we coached him in the spring ... and come here and improved a lot."

O'Brien met with Martin after organized team activities (OTAs) to go over the ways in which he wanted to see him improve. Martin had plenty of struggles in both the return game and as a receiver last season, and had to fight his way onto the roster. By midway through training camp, Martin had clearly moved himself off the bubble.

He competed with Mike Thomas, Travis Labhart, EZ Nwachukwu, running back Dennis Johnson (released earlier this month) and DeVier Posey for those return roles. If you want to get really technical, starting cornerback Kareem Jackson took some returns during OTAs and training camp, but there was no reason to ever take those seriously.

Labhart was released today, but could be back for the practice squad if he clears waivers. Thomas will likely make the team as the slot receiver. No word on Nwachukwu just yet.

W2W4: Houston Texans

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
DENVER -- The Houston Texans (1-1) and Denver Broncos (2-0) face each other in their third preseason game Saturday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. Here's what to watch for:

1. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick: He recovered in a big way from his uninspiring debut this preseason. Two scoring drives showed a marked improvement last weekend compared to his performance in the Texans' preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals. The Fitzpatrick who appeared against the Falcons is much closer to the quarterback I've seen in practices lately than the one who could barely stay on the field in Arizona. His improvement needs to be a trend, though. Fitzpatrick needs to be more consistent, especially outside of two-minute drills.

2. The slot receivers: The position is a competitive these days. Mike Thomas was the early leader, and he has still looked excellent in practices, but don't count out Keshawn Martin. This week's game will be important for both. Thomas sat out last weekend against Atlanta after getting knocked in his helmet during the week of practices against the Falcons. Martin and undrafted rookie Travis Labhart really took advantage of his absence.

3. The secondary: The Texans' depth at defensive back grew before our eyes from Week 1 to Week 2. I don't expect starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph to play tonight, which means another serious look at those guys against the best passing game in the NFL. We'll couch this by saying preseason games involve a pared down playbook and little game-planning. But the Texans will still learn a lot by watching cornerbacks such as A.J. Bouye, Elbert Mack and Andre Hal, who have all had promising moments this preseason. Mack, especially, had a strong week against the Broncos in practice. He could fight his way onto the roster in the next two weeks.
DENVER -- Admittedly, I can't watch every single drill every Houston Texans' player completes during practices, as I am only one person. But when I've watched Travis Labhart, the undrafted rookie receiver out of Texas A&M, he's caught everything sent his way.

"Coaches hopefully just are beginning to trust me and players alike," Labhart said. "That begins with the quarterbacks as well, because you don’t want to trick the quarterback. Then they’re not going to look your way if they can’t count on you."

Most of Labhart's reps come with backup quarterback Case Keenum and the two have connected on some excellent throws. They are certainly gaining confidence in each other as the preseason progresses.

Labhart's progression as a receiver has been tremendous, given that he was a college walk-on not too long ago and a practice player for the A&M women's basketball team.

He's perfectly aware of just how much he's learned.

"The coaching is just phenomenal," Labhart said. "I’ve learned so much. ... In the NFL, it’s a whole new ballgame. It has opened my eyes to a whole lot of new things. I’m just learning more about the game and I think the coaching has been outstanding. Also, the veteran leadership with Andre Johnson, Mike Thomas and all those guys have been really helpful to me gaining confidence and getting better as a player."

Making the Texans' 53-man roster won't be easy for Labhart. The Texans' receiver room is crowded and he's not the only member of it who has improved in the past several months. With his play, though, he's giving himself a chance.
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.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Hopkins
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexans receiver DeAndre Hopkins has shown soft hands throughout training camp.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJ.J. Watt has taken the time to help his teammates with technique during camp.

  • 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.

Texans Camp Report: Day 11

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
HOUSTON -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Houston Texans training camp.
  • When practice began, coach Bill O'Brien didn't like how it was going, so he stopped the script and threw the team into something different. A grind-it-out, high-energy, live tackling goal-line drill. "I just put the ball at the 10-yard line and let’s play football, you know," O'Brien said. Immediately the energy at practice jumped. Jonathan Grimes took a handoff from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and scored. A few plays later, nose tackle Jerrell Powe blew up a running play, tackling running back Andre Brown behind the line of scrimmage. "It ended up being a goal-line situation. I thought that got the guys going a little bit and we ended up having a decent practice."
  • Early in practice, the second-team offense incurred O'Brien's wrath after a sloppy series. The entire unit had to run a lap together.
  • Rookie quarterback Tom Savage's reps have increased throughout camp. O'Brien said he is taking developmental reps and has had 130 7-on-7 or team drill reps in 11 practices. Savage's throws in practice have been a mixed bag. But his head is spinning less than it was when he arrived in Houston and that is evident. On one play, undrafted rookie defensive end Julius Warmsley arrived in the backfield in what might have been a sack if he was allowed to touch Savage. Savage coolly found receiver Travis Labhart in the end zone.
  • Backup quarterback Case Keenum is working on feeling more comfortable being uncomfortable. "Does that make sense? Just pushing the limits and trying to find some continuity with the guys you’re playing with. So, it’s getting better. It’s getting better every day. Still making mistakes every day, which you know I don’t like. But I think that’s what makes you better; not making the same mistakes."
  • The Texans have Wednesday off before returning to practice on Thursday and Friday. They'll face the Arizona Cardinals on the road on Saturday.
HOUSTON -- The two of them walked off the field together, teammates who were separated for one season.

Now EZ Nwachukwu and Travis Labhart are after the same goal: making an NFL roster, or at least a practice squad, with the Houston Texans.

Labhart signed as an undrafted rookie out of Texas A&M this season, while Nwachukwu did the same last season. Nwachukwu was on the Texans practice squad for all of the 2013 season. Meanwhile, Labhart, once a walk-on in College Station, played in 12 games for the Aggies last season, starting in his final five. By that time Labhart had earned a scholarship, and in his senior season he caught 51 passes for eight touchdowns and 626 yards.

"This opportunity comes around once in a lifetime," Labhart said. "As being a rookie, you learn from veterans. You see Andre (Johnson)... catching Jugs after practice. You just have to wait your turn. For me, I want to make the most of this opportunity. If it means sticking around 30 extra minutes catching passes and trying to figure out what I need to work on. If it’s not catching passes, maybe it is working on routes or timing with quarterbacks."

The receivers are generally the last players to leave the field. Labhart and Nwachukwu have been among the group that has stayed after each of the Texans' morning training camp practices to work with the Jugs machines.

They've been impressive during team drills as well, fighting for catches, avoiding drops and running crisp routes.

"I mean, you know, rookie year I think things are going 1,000 miles per hour," Nwachukwu said. "Having a year under your belt and being able to know what to look for and know how to study film, you can think less and play more."

Nwachukwu believes his route-running is the area that has improved the most since his rookie season. He's paid more attention to being aware of the field, rather than simply running a route without that awareness. In college, on his way to 19 career touchdowns, which tied him for third in Texas A&M history, Nwachukwu could often get away with that.

"Coming from A&M, on some plays you can just go out there and use your athletic ability," Nwachukwu said. "You can win routes. But out here, you know, you’ve got guys like J-Jo (Johnathan Joseph) and K-Jack (Kareem Jackson), and if you do that you’re probably going to be in the sand somewhere. You definitely have to stay on your details and make sure your technique is right."

Making the team won't be easy for either player. The Texans have five receivers with game experience, all of whom have been focused and precise during training camp, ahead of Labhart and Nwachukwu. But one refrain around professional athletes is that they control only what they can. From that standpoint, Labhart and Nwachukwu have looked like they belong.