- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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His coaches rave about his humility and low-key nature. He also lives in Houston during the offseason because it makes it easier for him to train with the team year-round. As Slaton said after finishing a recent workout with the Texans, "I'm trying to improve any way I can. Even if I just gain one more yard than I had last season, I'll know that I'm getting better."
This could be the season in which Houston finally becomes a playoff team. The Texans have young talent on defense, a Pro Bowl receiver in Andre Johnson and a solid quarterback in Matt Schaub, when he's able to stay healthy. What the Texans also have is one of the best young running backs in the league in Slaton. If Houston really does make that long-awaited leap to being a postseason contender, Slaton's contributions will factor heavily in that success.
All Slaton did last season was bring excitement and productivity to a Texans running game that hasn't had much of either in the seven-year history of the franchise. He ran for a team-record 1,282 yards while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He added another 377 yards on 50 receptions. Remember, this is the same guy who was supposed to be a third-down back when he entered the NFL as a third-round pick out of West Virginia. He wound up ranked sixth in the league in rushing, higher than any other rookie in his class.
So even though other first-year backs generated more buzz coming into the 2008 season -- like Oakland's Darren McFadden, Chicago's Matt Forte and Tennessee's Chris Johnson -- Slaton quietly proved he could hang with anybody. Now he's eager to show he can do even more.
"Steve had success in high school and in college, and that helped elevate him once he got here," said Texans running backs coach Chick Harris. "Some players know how to compete on a higher level when they know they belong. That's all Steve has done since we got him."
Slaton's presence means plenty to the Texans, because they've rarely had much luck with running backs. Before his arrival, the Texans had only two other seasons in which their offense featured a 1,000-yard rusher. On both occasions, that person was Domanick Williams. Aside from him, the team has struggled with both recognizable names (Ahman Green, Ron Dayne) and unknowns (Jonathan Wells, Wali Lundy, Samkon Gado) in their backfield.
So it's no wonder eyes lit up when Slaton displayed signs of being a big-time player last season. Even though he lacked prototypical size (he's listed at 5-foot-9 and 203 pounds), he had many of the qualities that led to success behind the Texans' zone-blocking scheme. He had the vision to make the critical cuts. He had the quickness to get upfield in a hurry. He also was smart enough to learn the plays on the fly.
On top of all that, Slaton had familiarity with the scheme.
"The running system was similar to what I did in college, so that was a big thing for me," said Slaton, whose 3,923 career rushing yards at West Virginia rank fourth in school history. "Plus, the coaches and the players helped me pick up things as I went along. All that repetition really helped me develop, and my [draft status] was added motivation. I wasn't just going to be happy with being in the NFL. I wanted to be more than just a third-round pick."
Houston's coaches initially worried that they were thrusting too much information on Slaton last season, but he kept turning heads with his potential. He first excited them with a couple of runs in a preseason game against New Orleans. He made another strong impression in an early-season loss at Jacksonville, when he shifted out wide and raced by a linebacker for a 30-yard touchdown reception. Even the way Slaton handled his mistakes thrilled his coaches.
"Some rookies fall apart when bad things happen and they beat themselves up to the point that they can't compete," Harris said. "Steve never let that happen to him."
What Slaton did was keep a close eye on how he could correct those mistakes in the future. On the top of his to-do list this offseason is pass protection. Slaton never had to do much of that in West Virginia's wide-open spread offense, and his size made it a major challenge on the professional level. But he remains determined to improve, especially when it comes to recognizing where the blitz is coming from and how to thwart defenders.
The Texans also have been trying to determine how best to ease Slaton's workload. Though he held up down the stretch last season -- he had at least 20 carries in five of the Texans' past six games -- the team would like to find a bigger back to complement him.
The Texans already have two veteran candidates on the roster (Ryan Moats and Chris Brown) but two undrafted rookie free agents (Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster) could also figure in the mix. That being said, Harris maintains that Slaton should still expect to see the ball as often as he got it last season, when he finished with 268 carries.
Meanwhile, Slaton can't wait to pick up where he left off in 2008. He knows everything in this league comes down to opportunity, and he's grateful Houston gave him one. The fact that he came into the league with less fanfare than other runners doesn't bother him, either. As Slaton clearly understands, he's not the first player to be underrated by scouts when his college career ended.
But Slaton also realizes something else: The key to lasting in the NFL is not getting caught up in what you did the year before. He proved he had the numbers to warrant being an every-down back in the league, and now he has to provide them over and over again. That type of production would be something people in Houston haven't seen in a really long time. Then again, when it comes to Slaton's potential, it's something they probably need to get used to in a hurry.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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