James Casey emerges for Texans
James Casey lunged forward and pulled in Matt Schaub's pass for a diving touchdown catch late in the Houston Texans' loss to New Orleans last Sunday, not the kind of play a fullback usually makes.
The 6-foot-3, 243-pound Casey is unique, though, and is developing into a new offensive option for the Texans (2-1), who play Pittsburgh (2-1) on Sunday.
The converted tight end caught five passes for 126 yards against the Saints, including the 26-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. He also turned a short pass from Schaub into a 62-yard gain in the first quarter.
''I had kind of a breakout game,'' Casey said. ''I wish it would've come with a win, but we didn't get it done. I feel like I did a good job. I got some opportunities, took advantage of some of them and hopefully there will be more to come.''
Houston coach Gary Kubiak says they will. One of Casey's claims to fame is that he played seven different positions in a single game when he attended nearby Rice, and Kubiak says Casey's versatility has made the transition to his pro career.
''He's turning into a heck of a player,'' Kubiak said. ''As far as having him play the running back position, I don't know. He's capable of going back there. He's capable of protecting. We're always going to have some wrinkles for him because he's playing so well and he's a good football player.''
Casey was a fifth-round draft pick by the Texans in 2009 and played tight end in his first two seasons. He bulked up in the offseason to take on the fullback role, and when All-Pro Vonta Leach signed with Baltimore, Casey moved into the starting role.
The Texans signed free agent Lawrence Vickers early in training camp, but Casey kept the job.
''I know, going into training camp, there were a lot of question marks about me being capable of being the fullback and the lead blocker,'' Casey said. ''But I was given an opportunity, and that's what this league is all about. A lot of times, you're not given starting jobs out of college. You've got to work really hard at it. I worked hard for two years, and finally got a chance to play, so it felt good to go out and take advantage of it.''
Kubiak said the sure-handed Casey fit into the game plan in New Orleans, after not catching a pass in a 23-13 win in Miami the previous week. Casey was surprised, but ready, when Kubiak began calling his number.
''It wasn't anything they said to me, it was just how the game went,'' Casey said. ''The biggest part of it is getting Matt (Schaub) comfortable with me out there, and giving him trust in me that I can make plays in critical situations. If Matt starts to trust you, and if you can get open, he'll start looking your way more.''
Casey is Houston's third-leading receiver, with eight catches for 155 yards. His main job, though, is blocking for Arian Foster and Houston's other tailbacks and he says he's constantly working to improve in that area.
Last year, Foster led the league in rushing with Leach opening holes in front of him. With Foster hindered by a left hamstring strain early this season, Ben Tate has handled most of the carries and he topped 100 yards in Houston's first two wins, a sign that Casey is filling the role.
Casey is tall for a fullback, though, and coaches have said that he needs to work on keeping low when he blocks, a change in technique from when he played tight end.
''The No. 1 axiom in football is that the low man wins,'' Casey said. ''So, if a linebacker can get lower than you, he'll hit you back. If you get lower than him, than you can push him back. Little things like that, they're always talking to me. But at the same time, you can't focus on those little things, because then you start playing slow and you start worrying about it. I just try to do those things day in and day out, so it becomes second nature.''
Casey still works with tight ends coach Brian Pariani, but mostly concentrates on playing fullback. It's not a difficult balancing act for Casey, who graduated from Rice this summer with majors in economics, sports management and managerial studies with a minor in business.
''I've got to know a little bit of everything,'' he said. ''But I've been put in a unique circumstance. I'm very fortunate that the Texans gave me the opportunity to come in here and learn everything in the first two years. Most of the stuff we do, it's kind of interchangeable with what the fullback and the tight end need to know and line up, so I'm very comfortable with all of it.''