HOUSTON -- Texans defensive end Mario Williams desperately wants to blend in with his teammates, but that's no easy task when you're perhaps the most controversial No. 1 overall draft choice in league history.
To his credit, Williams has somehow remained patient with the persistent questions. Asked whether he'd ever daydreamed of being, say, the third overall pick, Williams didn't hesitate.
"No, because it would've been the same type of stuff," he said. "It would've been just as bad because people don't look at the overall situation. They just wanted someone else."
Fortunately for the Texans, Williams hasn't let the unreasonable expectations put him in the tank. When last season ended, he offered to take every member of the defensive line on an all-expense-paid vacation to Brazil. When only three teammates expressed any interest in the trip, he instead holed up at the Texans' Methodist Training Facility, where he dropped 10 pounds and added even more quickness to his game.
If you don't count his unscheduled appearance in a YouTube video driving his burnt-orange Lamborghini at 150 mph on a highway in North Carolina, it's been a pretty solid offseason for Williams.
"He's matured a lot as a person," second-year coach Gary Kubiak said. "There's no doubt about that. As a player, things are easier for him now. He doesn't have to work so hard just at the base schemes and what we're doing. Now he's just got to grow basically as a pro; coming up with more packages to rush the passer, coming up with more moves. That's where he's got to get better, to become more effective."
It seems odd that a coach who built his reputation as an offensive coordinator in Denver appears to be staking his future to a talented but young defense. The Texans have chosen a defensive lineman in the first round in four consecutive drafts, in part because the first two picks, Travis Johnson and Jason Babin, haven't exactly worked out.
Kubiak hired former Dolphins defensive coordinator Richard Smith to change the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and the early returns were disastrous. Through the first three games of 2006, the Texans' defense was allowing 483.7 yards per game as the team was outscored, 98-49.
In order to create some semblance of a pass rush, Smith played Williams on both sides, and moved him inside on third-down passing situations. As a result, Williams wasn't consistent, and his inability to register a sack through the first three games only added to his self-doubt.
"Moving him all around wasn't the right thing to do," Smith said. "We decided to let him get good at one spot, so he could just let his instincts take over."
Even now, veteran defensive end N.D. Kalu occasionally pulls Williams aside to remind him not to be so mechanical. Kalu, who played college football a few miles from Reliant Stadium at Rice, has served as a sounding board for young players such as Williams and this year's first-round draft choice, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye.
"I looked over the other day and Mario was counting his steps before making a move," Kalu said. "He's got 20 different people in his ear, and sometimes you have to say, 'Screw the coaches, screw the technique.'"
Williams finished with only 4½ sacks last season, but he played half the season with a foot injury that kept him out of practice and required pain-killing injections. A lot of players attempt to explain that sacks don't tell the whole story -- especially when they don't record many. But that's not the case with Williams.
Asked about his personal goals heading into this season, Williams said he wanted the single-season sack record. When I reminded him that he came up 18 sacks shy of that mark, his expression didn't change.
"You have to aim high," Williams said. "So I want the record."
Lost in the fallout from the 2006 draft is the fact that second-round draft choice DeMeco Ryans had a remarkable season at middle linebacker, finishing with 125 tackles and 3½ sacks. At 23, he's already the unquestioned leader of this defense. The only problem is that the former Alabama star is so unassuming that coaches have asked him to become more of a vocal presence on the field.
"I've coached players like Gary Plummer and Ken Norton Jr.," Smith said, "and DeMeco already has the recognition skills those guys had in their 10th years. A lot of times rookies will come over to the sideline all wide-eyed when something goes wrong, but that never happened to him."
Ryans said he takes a lot of pride in the fact that the Texans have chosen to build around their defense.
"We have to be the backbone of the team," he said. "If the offense can put a few points on the board, we think we can do the rest."
A week after the Texans fell to 0-3 with an embarrassing loss to the Redskins last season, they held the Dolphins to 289 yards in a 17-15 victory. Over the final 13 games of the season, the Texans had the 10th-best overall defense in the league, and allowed only 303.8 yards per game.
"We weren't as bad as we thought we were," said cornerback Dunta Robinson, a first-round draft choice in 2004.
Robinson spent February and March living out of a Ramada Inn in Newark, N.J., while working out at a nearby training facility. He had to take a shuttle to the facility because he left his two cars in Houston.
"It felt so good winning those last two games of the season that I just wanted to keep going," he said. "This city deserves a winning football team, and I felt like we all needed to do something extra to make that happen."
Now, we'll see if all that work pays off.
Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.