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Something to prove

Last year's top pick -- ahead of Vince Young and Reggie Bush -- is healthy and fit and wants to silence critics

August 19, 2007|From the Associated Press

HOUSTON -- Mario Williams knows defensive tackle isn't the sexiest position in football.

While Vince Young scampers for touchdowns and Reggie Bush dives and flips over defenders, last year's No. 1 overall pick is stuck in the trenches trying to get around double-teams that could involve up to 700 pounds of offensive linemen.

Yet, Houston Texans fans who wanted the team to draft Young, the Houston-born quarterback, or Bush, the Heisman Trophy running back, expect Williams to outdo and outdazzle them both.

How can he?

San Diego's Shawne Merriman led the league last season with 17 sacks, so if Williams got 20 this year would it quiet his detractors?

"Some people, I'm telling you, even that wouldn't be enough for them," Williams said with a hearty laugh. "They are locked on to the people they like and nothing will change their minds."

Fans who booed and hissed when the defensive end was announced as the top pick a year ago didn't have much reason to cheer for him in Houston's 6-10 season.

The former North Carolina State standout started every game in 2006 but finished with just 47 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks while dealing with a painful foot problem.

Many called that performance disappointing. Those in the Texans organization did not. And playing through his injury, they say, showed character.

"We didn't expect him to come out here and set the world on fire the first year," said Texans owner Bob McNair. "And the fact that he had the injury that he did, a lot of people would have said: 'Coach I can't play.' But he said: 'If I can help, even if I'm not 100 percent, I'm willing to go out there and do it.' I think that's an admirable trait. We were very pleased with that."

It's that team-first mentality that has endeared him to the other players. Asked what's most important to him in football, he said: "Just knowing that I give it all I got for my teammates when I'm out there."

He's healthy now and an intensive off-season workout regimen helped shave about 15 pounds off his 6-foot-6, 280-pound frame.

Another change this season is Williams' demeanor. Skittish and evasive when he first arrived, he now seems more open and confident on the field and with the media.

"I'm more relaxed," he said. "Just going through everything I went through last year helped. Now I know my position, I know what I'm supposed to be doing and I'm just trying to work on me as a person."

While McNair labels the criticism of Williams as unfair, Coach Gary Kubiak said that's the burden that comes with being a top pick.

"If you're drafted that high, and you have those type of expectations, that's something you're going to have to live with your whole career," he said.

Kubiak, in his second year in Houston, even had a long talk with Williams to try to put the situation in perspective for the 22-year-old. His points: careers go by too quickly; there will be good days and bad days; just keep battling.

Among those who understands the reality of Williams' situation is former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, who preaches patience.

"Defensive linemen, you can't do much with them the first year or first two years. You really can't," he said.

"It takes a good defensive lineman with abilities a while to learn how to transfer that over to the pro game. Once he gets it transferred he'll be good for 15 years.

"Believe me, there's going to come a time when they're going to be real proud of that choice."

This season Williams will play at right end exclusively after moving up and down the line last year. As much as the base schemes and packages, he's working on "letting loose" on the field.

"My biggest problem right now is that I'm so mechanical because I don't want to mess up," he said. "I just need to go out and let it go."

Another thing that should help him is the addition of tackle Amobi Okoye, the 10th pick in this year's draft. A pass rushing threat, Okoye should help lure some of the double teams away from Williams.

Despite the growing pains, the Texans remain confident they made the right choice in Williams. "I just told him that he is capable of being the outstanding player that we think he will be," McNair said.

"When he goes out and shows that to the fans, they'll forget all this other and all of the sudden they'll be saying: 'I told you so. I told you Mario was going to be great.' "

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