In the beginning . . .

This post has nothing to do with wine, but those of you who still follow the Texans may find it interesting. I first interviewed DeMeco Ryans on his 23rd birthday, which coincided with his first Texans training-camp practice in 2006. I’ve rarely been more impressed with a rookie than I was with the well-spoken Ryans, who, 17 years later, has returned as the Texans’ head coach . . . still trying to get them to the Super Bowl.

The prospect of having an undersized rookie start for them at middle linebacker this season should make the Texans cringe.

Except for one thing. Last year an undersized rookie started at middle linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, who weren’t seen cringing until they had lost the Super Bowl.

No, Lofa Tatupu couldn’t beat the Pittsburgh Steelers by his lonesome. That would have been a bit much to ask. But, fresh from the playing fields of Troy, the USC product definitely had a good enough season on Seattle’s behalf for everyone in Houston to keep an open mind about DeMeco Ryans, a Tatupu type who lined up in the middle for the Texans’ defense Monday morning.

“Ideally, it’s nice to have a veteran in that position,” concedes defensive coordinator Richard Smith, who is quick to remind that Ryans isn’t yet permanently ensconced as the MLB. “But if the cards are dealt another way, that’s all right, too. Right now the position is competitive. We moved him to the ‘Mike’ today. You never know what might happen tomorrow. Everybody’s trying to earn a position.

“We’re really pleased with what we saw in the mini-camps and off-season work. DeMeco is very knowledgeable and was obviously well-coached in college. (The job) isn’t too big for him. We think his movement skills are perfect for the position. He’s smart. He’ll handle it. He upgrades the athletic ability at the position.”

Defying conventional wisdom, the Seahawks had reached the same conclusions last summer about Mosi Tatupu’s son and look how nicely things panned out for them. The conference title was the first for the franchise in its 30 seasons.

Like Tatupu, Ryans comes from a college football colossus, Alabama. He knows what big games in front of big crowds are all about, so he’s psychologically prepared for the aura of the NFL, as was the former Trojan. Also, Ryans and Tatupu weigh about the same, close to 240 pounds. And, although Ryans lost points with the pickiest draft analysts because he’s “short” for an NFL linebacker, he’s 6-1, which makes him an inch or two taller than Tatupu.

The Texans love his intelligence and athleticism. They have concluded there’s only one real question to answer about the man they made the first pick of the second round of the draft: Can he handle calling the defensive signals and still play instinctively? Smith will spend the preseason ferreting out the answer.

“As with anything,” the coach said, “he’s going to learn with experience and game-time situations. If he can, it’s a bright spot for the organization.”

Ryans intelligence isn’t at issue. He made the SEC’s Academic All-Conference team in each of his last two seasons at Alabama.  Head coach Gary Kubiak calls him “studious” in the classroom and “accountable” on the field.

“The kid loves to play,” he said. ” If you could see him in a meeting room and the way he goes about his business for Joe (Marciano) and our team, he’s like a seven or eight year veteran already. He’s a great kid, and we knew that. His character is tops, and is football is pretty good, too.”

Ryans, for his part, doesn’t appear to be overly stressed by the responsibility he may be asked to bear.

“It’s a little harder,” he said. “In college everybody turned to the sideline and got the signals. Here, one person gets them and relays to the defense. I did it in high school. For me, it’s like going back to high school a little bit.

“You’ve got to have your mental part cleaned up so you can go out and be confident with what you’re doing. If you’re having to think too much you can’t get the job done.”

All things being equal, Ryans admits he prefers  being the MLB to playing on the flanks, but he’ll go where he’s put. After his NFL career officially began on his 23rd birthday – with the opening of his first training camp Friday – he seems excited just to walk onto the field every morning, the heat and the drudgery be hanged.

“I think it was hotter in Alabama,” he said, flashing a smile you’ll see often when he speaks. “I’m just glad I have the opportunity to come out here and compete for a starting job. I’m trying to get better, to hone my skills. I like the middle, but it doesn’t matter. I feel blessed to have the opportunity. A lot of people wish they could be in your shoes. Honestly, I don’t think I could have ended up in a better place.”

Ryans grew up near Tuscaloosa, breathing in the Alabama football tradition from the day he was old enough to know what a football was. The Texans’ comparatively sterile environs couldn’t be more different. He’s taken by the newness of everything,  not the least of which is Kubiak’s coaching staff.

So far, the NFL’s 32nd franchise has only known defeat in its four seasons. Ryans sees a role for himself in changing that.

“I’m in a place where I have a chance to prove something,” he said. “Other teams have had the great players who paved the way. Now I’ve got a chance to be one of those for this organization. Here we’re a new team with new coaches that’s up and coming. I like that. It’s a way to establish our own tradition and get things going in the right way. It’s time to put the bad seasons behind us.”

Coincidentally or not, the Seahawks put their bad seasons – close to three decades worth – behind them with the arrival of Tatupu, who was also a second-round draft pick, taken 45th overall to Ryan’s 33rd.  Informed of the many parallels between the two of them, Ryans replied: “You know, I hadn’t thought about that. But I’d like to go to the Super Bowl, too.”

While might be getting a little ahead of himself there, the Texans have to appreciate his way of thinking.

And they still do. OK, back to wine with my next blog. Gonna be talking about stuff I’ve tasted, fun folks I’ve met and a very cool French tasting event coming up Thursday, March 23, at the Alliance Française Houston in Montrose.

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