HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – You would have to be missing a pulse not to feel something inside when it comes Texans offensive tackle Derek Newton and the story of how he arrived to this point.
He was a late-comer to football and probably because of that he was overlooked by all the major colleges. And since he didn’t have the best test scores even the smaller four-year schools shied away when he was coming out of at tiny Hinds County Agricultural High School in Utica, Miss., Newton started out across campus playing for Hinds Community College before Arkansas State – yes, the Arkansas State Red Wolves – swooped in and stole him from the SWAC schools that were lining up.
But none of the disappointment from constantly being overlooked matter much Monday when Newton learned a year removed from playing in the Sun Belt Conference and being drafted in the seventh round (214th overall) that he will be the Texans starting right tackle come the regular-season opener in less than two weeks. His resolve and his uncanny ability to move his 6-foot-6, 318-pound body athletically had paid off.
The story is indeed incredible.
So is the risk the Texans are taking in handing over such a critical job on their offensive line to a gifted yet still very raw offensive tackle. While Newton played in a similar zone-blocking scheme at Arkansas State and he has outperformed projected starter Rashad Butler during camp and in the first three preseason games, what he is about to face against the Miami Dolphins come the Sept. 9 season-opener is nothing in comparison.
It was a given the right side of the Texans offensive line would be overhauled with the departures of tackle Eric Winston and guard Mike Brisiel. But coach Gary Kubiak and his staff are taking a big chance with a lineman who has never really played in an actual NFL regular-season game – save for some goal line situations last season in which Newton lined up as an tight end.
You would think Butler, who has entering his sixth NFL season, may have been the safer choice if for no reason than his experience alone. This is a playoff caliber team with Super Bowl aspirations. Even more immediately pressing, this a team with quarterback returning from a season-ending Lisfranc foot fracture and the last thing Matt Schaub needs at this point is an offensive tackle overwhelmed by the moment and lacking enough tricks of the trade to slow a pursuing defensive end.
Both Butler and Newton have their weaknesses, but offensive line coach John Benton and Kubiak believe there is more upside in the 24-year-old despite the fact he still has glaring deficiencies using his hands and in his foot work and maybe you would like to see him be a little nastier. Athletically and being able to block on the move, however, it isn’t close. Newton looks like he could grow in a freakish offensive tackle much the same way Duane Brown had chance to for a few seasons.
“I hope that we have no idea what his ceiling is,” Kubiak said. “We watch him play each week and we just see things that give him a chance to be a great player, not just a good player.”
Some of the metrics and intangibles are there to support Kubiak’s hope. The problem is the experience isn’t there at this point. We’ve already seen the running game with Pro Bowler Arian Foster and super backup Ben Tate slowed this preseason as the right side of the offensive line that now includes guard Antoine Caldwell takes time to come together.
It will only become more problematic once the regular-season kicks off with teams putting in more stunt packages and blitzes that can confuse the most experienced of offensive lineman.
But there is something about Newton and how quickly he has transitioned from a guy who just couldn’t grasp much last season to a guy who at least seems to always be in the right place. He began to close ground on Butler during OTAs and minicamp and pulled up dead even by training camp. Butler had the experience but boy could Newton move.
It wasn’t long before Newton was outplaying Butler, earning the starting spot in the last two preseason games.
“Derek’s a sharp young man, and he really struggled early in the season in training camp last year from just an assignment standpoint,” Kubiak said. “Once that started to become clear to him, then his talents really started to take over.”
It also didn’t hurt he had an offensive guru like Benton always invading his personal space, never letting one technique flaw go uncorrected. As we have come to know, Benton seems to be able to work miracles with guys who at one point in their careers weren’t thought much of like guard Wade Smith, center Chris Myers, who is now a Pro Bowler, Brisiel and we can’t forget Brown, a former first round pick who seems on the verge of becoming the premiere left tackle in the game.
“To come that far, to have draft choices like that play for you and start for you, it just says a lot about our progress and how we’re able to go about fitting players into our scheme,” Kubiak said. “Newton’s done a heck of a job; he’s come a long way from Arkansas State to starting next week.”
Actually Newton has come light years from a big guy who didn’t even start playing football until he was a junior in high school to get to this point. He will have to go even further to be the kind of offensive tackle the Texans need to build on their first playoff season.
“This is a big opportunity for me, coming from a small school, two years of high school,” Newton said. “Coming from a small town, not many people make it, but the grind, it was tough.