John McClain: With Pierce, Texans could be off and running

NFL team Houston Texans logo on waving jersey fabric. Editorial 3D rendering

John McClain: With Pierce, Texans could be off and running

If rookie Dameon Pierce doesn’t produce on a consistent basis the way the coaches believe he’s capable, the Texans are destined to have one of the NFL’s worst running games for a third consecutive season.

After finishing 31st in rushing in 2020 and 32nd last season when they had the most pathetic running game in franchise history, general manager Nick Caserio and coach Lovie Smith targeted the backfield and offensive line for what they hope will be substantial improvement entering Sunday’s game against Indianapolis.

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, promoted from quarterbacks coach, is calling the plays in place of the fired Tim Kelly. Hamilton has been entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing a running game that, ideally at least, can take pressure off second-year quarterback Davis Mills, control the clock and keep the defense fresh.

Pierce, the fourth-round pick from Florida, had an impressive training camp and preseason. In two games, he carried 11 times for 86 yards, averaging 7.8 a carry. He doesn’t have to be Arian Foster in his NFL debut against the Colts, but he does have to show he can be a considerable improvement over Rex Burkhead, last year’s leading rusher on an offense that averaged 83.6 yards and 3.4 a carry, both league lows.

Burkhead generated only 427 yards, fewest in Texans’ history for their leading rusher.

Starting with the elevation of Hamilton and continuing with the hiring of offensive line coach George Warhop, Smith’s philosophy of having a consistently productive running game is taking shape.

With left tackle Laremy Tunsil returning after playing in only five games last season and right tackle Tytus Howard back at his natural position after the failed experiment at left guard, the Texans could have terrific bookend tackles.

Right guard A.J. Cann, signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, has been a starter since the first day of OTAs. First-round pick Kenyon Green is listed second team behind Justin McCray at left guard after appearing in only one preseason game because of injuries. It’s only a matter of time before Green is elevated to starting status. Center Justin Britt, who was kept out of preseason games to protect his knees, has that old-fashioned kick-butt mentality that’s ideal for the kind of running game the coaches want.

Warhop’s goal for a running game that averaged 3.4 yards a carry is to improve to at least 4.5. That looks like he’s dreaming, of course, but consider this: In his last season with the Jaguars, who were the worst team in the league, they averaged 4.5 even with leading rusher James Robinson battling injuries. Only five teams averaged more than 4.5 yards a carry.

Especially considering the NFL plays 17 games now, it’s not too much to ask that Pierce become the third Texans’ rookie to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Domanick Davis, a fourth-round pick, ran for 1,031 yards in 2003. Steve Slaton (third round) set the team record for rookies in 2008 when he rushed for 1,282.

Pierce, 5-10, 218, might threaten Slaton’s rookie record if he can stay healthy and his offensive teammates show significant improvement as run blockers.

After starting only one game as a senior at Florida last season, Pierce has been counting down the days to his NFL debut.

“Playing in the NFL is a lifelong dream for anybody that plays this sport,” he said this week. “Being able to go on that grass for the first time in a real NFL game means everything.”

One reason former Florida coach Dan Mullen is now an ESPN analyst could be the way he misused Pierce. He touched the ball only 374 times in four seasons with the Gators, averaging 5.5 yards a carry and 9.4 a catch. Starting only one game last season, he scored 16 touchdowns, including 13 rushing.

Now Mullen is doing TV after getting fired, and Pierce enters his rookie season brimming with confidence. That confidence has impressed his coaches and teammates.

“He comes into the room and you start talking to him, and he’s got confidence,” Smith said. “Then, he goes to the field, and it’s, ‘What do I need to do, coach?’ And that’s every day.

“He loves football. I thought he would meet the personality we’d like to be, and that’s what we’ve seen. Then he starts playing, and we’ve seen every step along the way. We’ve seen the same thing from him. We’re excited about him being on the team, and that running back room is a lot stronger with him in it.”

Talking about his confidence, Pierce said, “Confidence comes with having great teammates, getting your reps in practice, getting to know the offense and then understanding the offense. I meet with the coach (Danny Barrett), and I’ll meet with him late if I have to. Being in the running back room and having those guys help me means everything.

“One thing I realized quickly is in the NFL, as much time as you spend taking care of our body and your mind off the field is going to translate on the field. I want to make sure I’m not lacking in one area. Whatever you do on the field has to match what you do off the field.”

Smith and Caserio won’t admit it, but they like that Pierce didn’t get 300 carries a season in college and doesn’t enter his rookie season with a lot of wear and tear on his body.

“He just didn’t really have an opportunity,” Caserio said when asked about Pierce starting only 11 games in college. “They had some different backs through the years. When he had a chance, he was productive.

“He has good lower-body strength, body balance and vision. And he’s pretty instinctive.”

Pierce’s lack of starts and carries at Florida and his 40-time of 4.59 at the combine could have reduced his draft stock, but since he stepped on the practice field for the first time and carried it over to preseason, he’s been a revelation. He runs hard and stays low. He makes quick cuts and has a knack for making defenders miss.

“He’s been consistent since he got here,” Caserio said. “He’s got a good attitude. He’s got a good work ethic. Football’s important to him. When you go back and look at whether it was Florida, the Senior Bowl or the combine, our  interactions with him have been pretty consistent.”

But, as Caserio warns, Pierce is still a rookie who didn’t have a lot of carries in preseason.

“There’s been a small sample on the field, so I certainly think he’s got a lot of work ahead of him,” Caserio said. “Nobody has played a full game yet.

“What we try to do when we put the team together, if we have depth, try to use it. Just try to maximize our depth because we’re going to need it at some point. It’s a long year. This is Week One. There’s going to be 17 games, so we’re going to need everybody at some point.”

But if it’s not Pierce doing the heavy-duty work, the running game could be terrible. Again.

(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He also can be read on

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