HOUSTON – Steve Slaton has some young and eager competition as he tries to regain his spot as the Houston Texans' featured running back. In Slaton's mind, he never lost the job, despite a sub-par second season that ended a month early because of a neck injury.
He's healthy now, determined to cut down his fumbles and help kick-start the Texans' running attack, which ranked 30th in the league last season (92.2 yards per game).
"I'm always going to feel like I'm the guy," Slaton said. "That's just a pride factor in me. I missed the last five games so I'm very anxious, happy to be here and happy just to be cleared to be out here with the team."
Slaton will have to beat out Arian Foster, who rushed for 218 yards in the final two games as a rookie, and has worked with the first-team offense during the first two days of training camp. The Texans drafted Auburn star Ben Tate in the second round, and Chris Henry and Jeremiah Johnson are also getting reps.
Slaton is hoping to return to his 2008 form, when he led all rookies with 1,282 rushing yards, a franchise record. He ran for only 437 yards and coughed up seven fumbles last season, miscues he blamed on a pinched nerve in his neck that caused numbness in his right arm and forced him to miss the last five games.
He underwent cervical fusion surgery and came to training camp ready to prove himself all over again.
"Every day is a different day, you've always got to perform," Slaton said. "It's not about what you did before, it's about what you're doing now."
Meanwhile, Houston coach Gary Kubiak thinks Foster, an undrafted rookie in 2009, may turn out to be a major discovery. The 23-year-old Foster spent the first 10 games of 2009 on Houston's practice squad before emerging as the team's top backfield threat in December.
Kubiak said the 23-year-old Foster is mature beyond his years and will be tough to unseat for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
"He's just growing up and becoming a totally different young man," Kubiak said. "We are not going to have a battle about how he tries to give his effort. That's over. It's all about football with him. He got his chance and he is going to be a fine player. We are all excited to see what he's doing right now."
Foster is approaching this training camp with the same mindset as last year with one difference — instead of fighting for a roster spot, he's aiming for a starting role.
"My mentality hasn't really changed," he said. "Once you get an opportunity, you have to produce. You have to show them what you can do. I wasn't up at 5:30 (a.m.) this offseason for nothing, so my mentality isn't, 'This spot is mine.' My mentality is, 'This spot is going to get taken. I am going to take it.'"
But there's more to establishing a running game than just finding the right running back.
The Texans sustained key early injuries on their offensive line last season, and the unit struggled at times to click in the ground game.
Kubiak hired Rick Dennison to replace offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who went to join his father, Mike, in Washington. Dennison was Kubiak's successor in Denver and under him, the Broncos rushed for 124 yards per game between 2006-08.
Dennison doesn't want to make major scheme changes in Houston, just forge chemistry between the running backs and the line. He said the continuity between the units was missing at times in 2009.
"It wasn't as coordinated, for whatever reason, as a package as I've seen them do in previous years," Dennison said. "That's all we're trying to do, is make sure everyone is on the same page and being consistent with what we're trying to do."
The Texans' anemic running attack also left them unable to sustain key possessions late in close games. Dennison said that may be the most important area to improve.
"If you're doing it right, in the fourth quarter, you're getting your bigger gains," Dennison said. "If you're wearing 'em out, that's what you want to do. Hopefully, that's what we're working toward."