NEWS AND NOTES

Texans training camp report: Running backs already impressing O'Brien

Photo by Getty Images.

The sound of Deshaun Watson under center inside the Methodist Training Center could only mean one thing — football is back.

J.J. Watt described the feeling as being similar to the first day of school. On Friday, the Houston Texans held their first practice in full pads since opening training camp on July 25. For the Texans, the next few weeks of camp will take on a different purpose, with preseason canceled due to COVID-19.

Here is my first Texans training camp report. I will be publishing one of these every day of practice, with observations and notes as the Texans prepare to open their 2020 season against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on September 10.

Scottie Phillips makes early impression on Bill O'Brien

In June, I called Scottie Phillips the most significant steal following the 2020 NFL Draft. Why? The 5-foot-8 running back may have the most upside out of his undrafted contemporaries, and many consider him to be one of the most talented players at his position.

Although he may not receive much playing time thanks to the likes of David Johnson, Duke Johnson and Karan Higdon Jr., Phillips is making his claim to become the Texans' running back of the future. On Saturday, Head Coach and General Manager Bill O'Brien raved at Phillips' talent as a back who possesses great ball security and explosiveness coming out of the backfield.

"I think he's getting better," O'Brien said. "I think that he's in a very competitive position. Karan Higdon (Jr.) has been practicing really well, too. He had a couple good runs yesterday [Friday] that you probably saw. It's a very competitive position, but I do think that Scottie is working at it and he's improving."

Duke Ejiofor tears ACL, out for the season

The first day of padded practice did not end on a good note for the Texans. Late Friday afternoon, Houston announced that OLB Duke Ejiofor will miss all of the 2020 season after he sustained an ACL injury at practice.

Ejiofor's latest injury is a continuous streak of misfortunes for the Houston native. After a promising rookie season in 2018, Ejiofor suffered a torn Achilles last training camp and missed his entire sophomore season. Bill O'Brien, for the second straight season, has encountered the daunting task of replacing Ejiofor's on-field production.

"Duke has a very unique skill set," O'Brien said. "You could use Duke in a lot of different ways. He wasn't just an outside backer. He could do some different things. I don't know relative to replacing that exact skill set. I think it's more about what can these guys do and how can we fit it to what we're trying to do."

Jordan Thomas is back to full health

Following a breakout rookie season in 2018, the Texans placed Jordan Thomas on IR following a rib injury he sustained last preseason. The 24-year-old tight end missed 11 games in 2019 and did not receive much playing time once he made his return in a Week 12 victory over the Colts.

Now healthy, Thomas will be in the running to become Houston's primary tight end — a position held by the likes of Darren Fells and Jordan Akins. And after his first two days of practice, no one is as excited for Thomas' return than Watson.

"He's a guy that's very talented and has so much potential," Watson said. "He's been working, you can tell. He came back ready and prepared for this camp. He's ready to go. Whenever he gets his opportunity, I'm definitely going to give him a shot. He's been capitalizing on those."

In 2018, Thomas appeared in all 16 regular-season games (10 starts) where he recorded 20 receptions for 215 yards (10.6 AVG) and four touchdowns.

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Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

For the first time since July 1984, NASCAR returns to one of its most popular cities in Nashville, Tennessee for the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Super Speedway. This track is a 1 1/3rd mile concrete oval that was dormant for nearly ten years and was only used as a testing facility. So it came as a bit of a surprise last season when it was announced that this track would be getting a date. For a lot of drivers, this will be a brand new racetrack, but we will see practice and qualifying, so that will be a huge help for the newcomers that haven't raced here before. Back when the Xfinity and Trucks ran here, this track featured a lot of first time winners. Back in 2008, future NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski shocked the world by jumping in Dale Jr's car and capturing his first win here. There will be a lot of veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who have plenty of experience at this track, but it will be tough to compare. It should be fun with everyone coming into this race with minimal knowledge.

Last week, Kyle Larson continued his hot streak by winning the All-Star Race. Overall, while Larson and his Hendrick teammates probably enjoyed the race, the feedback from crews and fans was less than positive. As I was walking through the garage area and talking to a few crew members, a lot of them were very critical of the 450 horsepower motor and the tall spoiler to try and keep the cars bunched up. When I asked one of the crew-members what he thought about the package he told me, "Oh it's awful. The track is terrible, the package makes it impossible to pass and it's super hot out here." On green flag runs, it was the same as it ever was as the lead car would pretty much take off and the only time there was really any "pack racing" it came after there were restarts. The whole race was well-intentioned and the fans showed up as it was nearly a capacity crowd, but the whole thing just didn't make any sense. From the start time being in the nearly 100 degree heat to the wacky full-field invert at the end of each stage. Let's hope that next season's All-Star Race is a lot more concise.

In Silly Season news this week, Truck Series regulars GMS racing announced that they would be fielding a full-time cup series team. The team is currently owned by Allegiant Airlines CEO Maurice Gallagher and his son, Spencer, who used to drive for them in the Xfinity Series. This move seemed to come from out of nowhere as there was never any indication that this was a move they were exploring anytime soon after they turned down the opportunity to purchase Furniture Row Racing in 2019. This is certainly a great sight for the sport as there will be more new teams on the track and with their close relationship with Chevy, it wouldn't be a surprise if they step in and help this team become competitive. The favorite to drive their car has to be 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed. He has easily been their best driver in trucks, and it would make the most sense for him to get the promotion.

This week at Nashville, the driver that I have winning is Alex Bowman. Now while this is a brand new racetrack and he has a grand total of zero starts here, this track suits his driving style perfectly. With the inclusion of this track, there are now four tracks with a concrete surface. Nashville, Bristol, Dover and Martinsville. At the three of the tracks they have run at, he has shown a lot of speed, including a victory at Dover this season and a top ten finish at Bristol. This is also a track where crew-chief Greg Ives said Bowman has gravitated towards during testing. In an interview with Sirius XM Ives was quoted as saying "we used to have a lot of fun testing there," so this is clearly a track that they both enjoy going to. Another big factor going into Sunday will be just how fast these Hendrick Motorsports cars are, they have finished 1-2 over the last four points races. He has watched his teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have immense success, and now this week I think he is due for a third win of the season. Look for the bright purple #48 Chevy to go to victory lane this week at Nashville.

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