HOUSTON – Jalen Pitre trusts his instincts, counting on his mind to guide his body toward the football.
It’s an approach that has served the Texans’ promising rookie safety well. The second-round draft pick from Baylor is poised to start his first NFL regular-season game Sunday at NRG Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts and veteran quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Stafford graduate and former Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the year can’t wait for this game and the opportunity to test himself against an AFC South rival. He feels confident. He saves his emotions for practice sessions, getting it out of his system.
“I get real nervous for practice when it’s the first time we’re looking at things,” Pitre said. “By the time the game comes, I’m reading my keys at that point. You trust what you see, and what you know.”
The Texans’ precocious rookie earned his starting job in training camp by taking decisive actions and aggressively pursuing the football.
In two preseason games, he had 10 tackles, two for losses and displayed outstanding pursuit and range.
And his preparation paid dividends during his first NFL preseason game.
In his professional debut, Pitre bolted into the Saints’ backfield to tackle running back Dwayne Washington for a loss of two yards.
By doing so, the second-round draft pick from Baylor signaled that his impressive performances in practice carry over in game situations.
Pitre covered a lot of ground to make that tackle during the Texans’ 17-13 victory at NRG Stadium, finishing his first game with four tackles.
Pitre was also in position to potentially pick off Saints backup quarterback Ian Book on a deflected pass that was intercepted by cornerback Tremon Smith.
“Jalen Pitre, he was probably up to speed in second week of OTA’s,” Smith said. “He’s a really good looking rookie, and I’m excited to watch him ball. I got him catching the first pick, actually.”
Signed to an $8.95 million contract that includes a $3.692 million signing bonus, Pitre models his game after New Orleans Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu, a former All-Pro selection and Texans defensive captain, along with Arizona Cardinals standout safety Budda Baker.
A former consensus All-American, Pitre led Baylor with 18 tackles for losses in his final college season. He finished with 76 tackles total, had three sacks, seven pass breakups, two interceptions, and three fumble recoveries.
“Very excited, I’m honored to play in the NFL,” Pitre said. “It’s good. We have a test here, and it’s going to fun to go out there and play.”
Among the challenges this week: veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, a former Super Bowl participant with the Atlanta Falcons, and arguably the best running back in the NFL in Jonathan Taylor.’
“I expect a profession, a guy who’s seen it all and done it all,” Pitre said of Ryan. I expect to get his best and I’m looking forward to the challenge. They have two great backs in Taylor and Nyheim Hines. They complement each other. Taylor is a great runner, downhill, has the speed to break away and also has moves inside.”
The Texans are encouraged by what they’ve seen so far from Pitre. That’s why they plugged him into an immediate starting job opposite Jonathan Owens. The Texans are also starting rookie Derek Stingley Jr., a cornerback and third overall pick of the draft who was held out of the first preseason game for precautionary reasons.
“Jalen Pitre has been outstanding throughout camp,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “I like what he’s done.”
As well as Pitre has performed, he has maintained a humble, low-key approach. That falls in line with his unassuming, friendly personality. Pitre doesn’t think he has everything figured out yet.
The Texans envision Stingley and Pitre forming a cornerstone tandem in an overhauled secondary.
“Stingley, you know, he’s great,” Pitre said. “He’s a guy that I lean on when talking about different things that the offense is trying to do. I love playing with him and I love being out there with him. We’re always talking about what we’re about to get and I feel like me and him are going to be great together.”
During a practice session early in camp, Pitre saw a collision unfolding in front of him as Thomas and linebacker Neville Hewitt converged on wide receiver Chris Conley, popping the football into the air. And Pitre pounced on the opportunity, diving forward for his first interception of camp. It was a big play, but it didn’t come as a surprise.
“That boy is a dog,” Texans tight end Brevin Jordan said. “I’m excited for him. He’s instinctual, he plays fast and he’s already out there making plays.”
The Texans like Pitre’s aggressive, fired-up style of play and his versatility.
“He plays with his hair on fire,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said after drafting Pitre. “Versatile player, they used him a little bit inside in the slot. He played safety, so he has some position versatility. I think he might have a role in the kicking game. Tough, instinctive football player, loves playing football. His energy was infectious when he was in the building.
“I would say Jalen falls in the category of embodying the types of people and players that we want to have in this building. Kind of their vigor and joy playing football. You see it in the way that he plays. He plays with his hair on fire.”
At 5-foot-11, 198 pounds, Pitre packs a lot of power into a regular-sized frame. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds and posted a 35-inch vertical leap prior to the NFL draft. That means he’s more than fast enough and can jump high to knock down passes against taller wide receivers and tight ends.
“He’s probably the most consistent rookie I’ve seen in my years,” Texans linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis said. “He’s just one of the guys. He is a rookie, but he doesn’t play like one.”
The respect of his older teammates is emotionally significant for Pitre, as is the support of having his family in the stands cheering him on.
He’ll have a large cheering section Sunday at NRG Stadium, but he doesn’t focus on the details of the ticket allotment.
“I leave that up to my parents,” he said. “I try not to think too much about tickets.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC Sports and Click2houston.com