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 HOUSTON (AP) -There wasn't much of a learning curve for DeMeco Ryans when he made the jump from college to the NFL.
The linebacker immediately became the star of Houston's young defense. He earned rookie of the year honors by leading the league with 126 solo tackles and his 156 tackles were the most by a rookie in the past 20 years.
Now entering his third season, the 23-year-old has become the leader on defense and coaches look to him to help the entire group improve.
``He means a great deal,'' coach Gary Kubiak said. ``A couple of the linebackers that we brought in are older than he is, but his presence and what he means for our football team, I think those guys understand that and his work habits. It means a great deal to everybody on the team.''
Ryans, the first pick in the second round in 2007, followed up his outstanding rookie season with another strong year in 2007. He led the team with 127 tackles and was selected to his first Pro Bowl, but his work was overshadowed by a breakout season by former top overall pick Mario Williams, who had 14 sacks.
That's OK by him though. He wants to see the entire group excel.
``I want to improve my game, but it's definitely not all about me,'' he said. ``I want to improve all the guys around me. If I can do that and make everyone else better, I feel like we can have our goal of being a playoff team this year and that's what we are definitely looking forward to.''
The Texans reached .500 for the first time last season.
Kubiak believes linebacker is an area where Houston can improve drastically this season, and a big reason for his supposition is Ryans' guidance.
Ryans is always available to help his teammates, but has taken a special interest in second-year linebacker Zac Diles. Diles was his backup at middle linebacker last season but will probably start on the outside this season.
``He's like a big brother to me,'' Diles said. ``He's my mentor. He's been so important to me. He's so smart. He took me under his wing last year. He tells me to work hard, play hard and concentrate on everything I do. Coming from a guy like DeMeco, of course you're going to listen.''
He knew Diles wouldn't mind the help this season as he adjusts to his new position.
``Zac's doing good. It's a different role for him, a different position,'' Ryans said. ``He had to come in and learn a different position, which is kind of difficult.''
Though Ryans is growing into his role as a vocal leader, the laid-back player still prefers to lead by example.
``That's always been my approach through college and now in the NFL,'' he said. ``If I lead by example, then guys will see me doing right all the time and when it's their turn they'll follow after me.''

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