HOUSTON – The Texans made it official Tuesday, naming rookie running back Dameon Pierce as their starting running back on an updated depth chart.
Piece is slated to start Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium.
Pierce, ever since the Texans drafted him, has gone about his work diligently. He talked with his cleats, and his shoulder pads.
When the Texans’ rookie running back attacked the line of scrimmage with explosive cuts and a punishing style that combines quick cuts, outstanding balance and an aggressive manner of lowering his pads and delivering the blow, he served notice that he was the top option on the roster for a running game that was the worst statistically in the league last year.
In other lineup updates, Justin McCray is listed as the starting left guard ahead of rookie first-round draft pick Kenyon Green and Neville Hewitt is listed as a starting linebacker ahead of Garret Wallow, who returned to practice this week from an ankle injury that sidelined him during the preseason.
The arrival of Pierce signaled a steady climb on the depth chart, earning the right to be the Texans’ primary running back. He rushed for 86 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries in two preseason games and is now a popular trending option for fantasy football managers.
The emergence of Pierce shifted the Texans’ plan from initially having former Indianapolis Colts 1,000-yard rusher atop the depth chart to releasing him and then cutting him from their practice squad.
“I think he’s been consistent, like a lot of players,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said of Pierce. “I’d say the rookie class for the most part has been a pretty consistent group. I think Dameon has been consistent since he got here. He’s got a good attitude. He’s got a good work ethic. Football is important to him. I think when you go back and look at whether it was Florida, whether it was the Senior Bowl, whether it was the combine, our different interactions with him, it’s been pretty consistent.”
Pierce rushed for 574 yards and 13 touchdowns last season in a Gators offensive system that platooned running backs. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 156 yards and one score. Now, Pierce is off to a fast start at the NFL level.
Given more carries, perhaps Pierce would have been drafted much higher.
“He just didn’t really have an opportunity, maybe they split the carries at Florida,” Caserio said. “They had some good backs there. They had some different backs through the years. When he had a chance, he was productive with his touches. I think he has good lower body strength, good body balance, pretty instinctive, has good vision. That’s been a small sample I would say just on the field, so I certainly think he’s got a lot of work ahead of him. Nobody has played a game yet.”
What isn’t ambiguous is that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants to emphasize what he’s hoping will be an upgraded running game after the Texans were statistically the worst rushing attack in the NFL a year ago.
The experiment of older running backs Mark Ingram, David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead was a colossal failure. Now, the Texans are hoping that Pierce along with former Indianapolis Colts 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack and Burkhead can combine for a stronger running game.
The Texans rushed for only 1,422 yards, 3.4 yards per run and eight touchdowns last season.
Texans coach Lovie Smith characterized the Texans as a running team, and he sees Pierce as a big part of the equation.
“I don’t have a mask on on how I feel about things,” Smith said. “Dameon Pierce has played good ball pretty much since he got in the facility. He’s a good football player, right amount of power. He’ll make you miss in the open field. He can catch the ball. He can do a lot of things that NFL running backs do.”
Pierce started against the San Francisco 49ers and rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown on six carries in one series during a 17-0 preseason victory at NRG Stadium. Pierce displayed an ultra-physical demeanor against the NFC West franchise.
“I’m just taking advantage of every opportunity,” Pierce said after the game. “I’m grateful to be in this position. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. You’ve got to find that happy medium. Once you find that as an athlete, it’s easy to navigate. At the end of the day, you’re going to learn from it and get better from it.”
Pierce was clearly the most impressive back in practice sessions and games, including a 49-yard rushing performance on five carries against the New Orleans Saints. With Pierce, though, it’s more about the kind of crisp runs he’s manufacturing and his ultra-physical approach more so than fancy statistics.
Pierce said he gave his first touchdown ball to his mom.
“It means a lot,” Pierce said. “It’s a great organization, a great family atmosphere around here. It’s a good feeling when you walk in the building. Everybody is pulling in the same direction. It’s making it easy to buy in.”
After seeing enough out of him against New Orleans, Pierce was held out of the Texans’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Pierce’s running style is fun to watch, and it’s painful for defenders to deal with.
“I don’t run with good intentions, to answer your question,” Pierce said. “I don’t be angry, just real passionate about what I do. I took bits and pieces of everybody’s game and molded it to my own style, which is violent. I like to fight for my yards. I like to punish the defense. I don’t like taking hits. I like giving hits.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com