HOUSTON (AP) -Mario Williams begins preparations for his second season in Houston with a wide smile and a spring in his step.
No longer dogged by the constant questions about being the No. 1 pick and healthy for the first time in months, the hulking defensive end looks like a new man.
Williams started each game last season and finished with 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks, but was slowed for much of the year by plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
On top of dealing with the injury, there were the questions - all those endless questions. Fans booed when the Texans passed on Reggie Bush and Vince Young to draft Williams No. 1 overall last year and criticism of the pick only intensified as the Texans sputtered to another losing season.
Williams always claimed to ignore what was said about him, but would become annoyed and clam up each time those questions came.
After the first day of Houston's minicamp Wednesday he was much more relaxed.
``The time off helped me big time,'' he said. ``I feel a whole lot better now. That other stuff, I'm not worried about that.''
The pain of Williams' foot problem was so intense at times last season he was often seen limping around the facilities in the days leading up to games.
``I don't think people really understood how much he sacrificed by playing with the injury,'' general manager Rick Smith said. ``But he knew how important it was for our football team that he be out there and he did that.''
It was that gutsy work ethic that gained him the respect of teammates. With a year of experience, he's hoping to build on that respect and improve to a level that will help him become a leader on the defense.
``Yeah I want to lead, but I'm pretty quiet,'' he said. ``So what I want to do is basically just go out and play ball and just let my play speak for itself.''
Smith believes Williams will benefit from the addition of 19-year-old defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, whom Houston chose with the 10th pick in this year's draft.
``I think Amobi Okoye is going to help him,'' Smith said. ``I think the two of those guys are going to grow together as young men and young players in this league. I think he's excited about that.''
Williams, who lobbied for the Texans to draft Okoye, has already taken the youngster under his wing.
``We're both young guys and I look forward to answering any questions he has or just helping him out whenever tough times come,'' Williams said. ``Everybody is going to have tough times so I'll be there for him.''
Williams has also given Okoye some advice about how to deal with negative press after some questioned whether he would struggle in the NFL because of his age.
``I know everyone has been coming after him about that, saying he's young and this and that,'' Williams said. ``I just told him: 'Don't worry about it and just play ball. Football is football. Don't let it be too big of an issue. Don't make it bigger than what it is.'''
Okoye's addition will also have an immediate impact on Williams as he'll now play only one position. Last season Williams was shuffled up and down the line when injuries and lack of personnel forced the Texans to experiment with different alignments.
``We would like to settle Mario down,'' coach Gary Kubiak said. ``Mario's going to work on the right exclusively right now. What's best for Mario is that he stay in one place and work.''
Coaches believe most of what Williams was able to do last season was simply because of his size (6-foot-6, 291 pounds) and believe the speed and explosiveness they fell in love with before the draft will return this season with his foot issues behind him.
It's a possibility the 22-year-old can't wait to explore.
``I can push myself further without having to worry about continuing to injure something like I did last year,'' he said. ``I can just let loose now.''

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