Texans RB Slaton looks to rebound from off year

HOUSTON (AP) — Steve Slaton can't wait to get back on the field for the Houston Texans.

The running back struggled last year with fumbling and a nerve problem in his neck, winding up with a subpar second season after rushing for a franchise-record 1,282 yards as a rookie.

He and the team had downplayed the extent the nerve issue contributed to his fumbling. But after offseason neck surgery to correct the problem, Slaton acknowledged that it was a major factor in his inability to hold onto the ball.

Slaton said he couldn't feel his right arm from the thumb to his shoulder.

"If you can't feel your hand, then you really can't squeeze as hard as you want to," he said as the Texans began their offseason work. "I tried to downplay it, but it came to a point where it was so serious I had to get surgery."

Slaton fumbled seven times and rushed for just 437 yards in the 11 games before he was placed on injured reserve. Now that the feeling in his arm has returned, he's confident he can return to top form for the Texans.

"I think any player is going to feel like they have something to prove," Slaton said. "Definitely from having a positive first year and such a negative second year, I think I need to get back to what my first year was."

Slaton hasn't been cleared for contact, but participated in Houston's non-contact team practices this week. He smiled broadly as he darted and dashed through the defense and down the field Tuesday, his face conveying the sentiment he shared after practice: "I'm excited," he said. "Just to be out here feels good."

The Texans ranked first in yards passing last season, but the offense had trouble in short-yardage situations with a running game that finished 30th in the NFL. Slaton hopes his return can change that number and coach Gary Kubiak is counting on it.

"He's had a good offseason," Kubiak said. "Steve will come back. This team needs him to come back big time."

The 5-foot-9 Slaton bulked up last season to about 215 pounds, but has returned to his rookie weight of 199 pounds. He gained weight to help deal with the hits he takes from much bigger players, but decided it hurt his effectiveness.

"I feel more comfortable at this size," he said. "I think it just utilizes what I'm good at, my speed and my quickness."

Along with his rushing yards, the Texans also use Slaton extensively in the passing game on short throws he often turns into bigger gains. He's had 94 receptions for 794 yards and five touchdowns in his first two seasons.

Quarterback Matt Schaub is excited to have a weapon like Slaton back this season.

"Absolutely, I think we all are," Schaub said. "He's running well. He looks good. He says he feeling good and it will be fun to get him back out there playing healthy and good football."

The Texans drafted Auburn's Ben Tate in the second round this year to add depth at running back and give Houston a bigger player to complement the smaller and shifty Slaton. Tate ran for 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and left Auburn with 3,321 yards in four seasons.

Houston also has Ryan Moats and Arian Foster on the roster, but Slaton plans to keep the starting job.

"I'm always going to feel like it's my job," Slaton said. "I feel like I want to be the leader. It's definitely competition, but if you look at us all individually, we all offer something different so that's a positive thing."