HOUSTON — Ben Tate never got a rookie season.
A second-round pick in the 2010 draft, the former Auburn running back broke his right ankle in the Texans’ first preseason game and was carted off the field. He was placed on injured reserve, underwent surgery and watched his first year in the NFL from the sideline.
The 5-foot-11, 219-pound Tate came into this year’s training camp eager to show the Texans what he could do, but he’s hindered by an injury again. He left Tuesday’s practice with tightness in his hamstring, and he and the coaches are left to wonder how he’ll make up the lost time.
“It’s more annoying than anything,” Tate said after Tuesday’s afternoon walk-through. “I need reps. It’s bugging the hell out of me.”
Adding to Tate’s angst is the stacked competition behind 2010 rushing champion Arian Foster. Steve Slaton is looking for a bounceback season, Derrick Ward is trying to follow up a productive 2010 and former Texas star Chris Ogbonnaya has impressed coach Gary Kubiak in early practices.
“It’s frustrating, when you’ve been working so hard in the offseason to get ready for this, and you have a hamstring injury that’s just nagging right now,” Tate said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. The only thing I can do is keep going, and when I do get healthy, come back and show I haven’t missed a beat.”
But Kubiak said Tate is losing ground on the other backs.
“He’s missed a lot of time,” Kubiak said. “He came out [Tuesday] and said his hamstring is sore again, so we pulled him out. He’s missing a lot of work since he’s been out here, so we’re all just waiting on him to get back out here and get going. Those other guys are working their tails off and had another good practice.”
Tate starred at Snow Hill High School in Maryland, setting the state single-season rushing record as a junior (2,886 yards). He averaged 13 yards per carry as a senior, helping his school reach the state championship game.
He was Auburn’s leading rusher as a senior in 2009 (1,362 yards), and the Texans were happy that he was available in the second round.
Last year, Tate was competing for time at running back with Foster, Slaton, Chris Henry and Jeremiah Johnson before snapping his ankle early in Houston’s preseason opener in Arizona. He tried to watch and learn all he could as he recovered from the surgery.
“We wanted him to watch what was going on, how guys prepared for the games,” running backs coach Chick Harris said. “Those are things you sometimes don’t get unless you’re into it.”
But Harris said nothing beats actual practice, and he’s as concerned as Kubiak about how many snaps Tate is sitting out.
“He’s snake-bit,” Harris said. “You just hope that he can work his way out of it. I can understand injuries, they happen. But the guys who can stay on the field, you get more looks at them. He’s got great potential. But we’ve just got to keep him on the field. Stay on the field, that’s when you get your reps. Then you’re ready.”
Tate dismissed the injuries as “just part of football.” He said the ankle held up fine through the first week of practice, and he said the hamstring issue is minor.
But he also realizes the urgency of returning as soon as he can.
“It’s tough, because you do want to be out here with your teammates, you do want to be working hard,” Tate said. “For missing so much time last year, this is stuff that I don’t take for granted anymore, practicing.”
Houston plays its preseason opener against the New York Jets on Monday, and Tate hopes Kubiak gives him a look.
“My No. 1 thing is being able to show what I can do in these preseason games,” Tate said. “If I can get healthy and be healthy for those, that’s all that’s going to matter. I’m missing reps. But as long as I come back, and I know what’s going on, then you’ve got to get better.”