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 HOUSTON (AP) -DeMeco Ryans began playing football in middle school and was the starting center for his first team.
But when the star linebacker got a disciplinary suspension for half of a game, the coach plugged Ryans into the spot. It was an amazingly natural fit.
``I mean, I made every tackle,'' the Houston Texans All-Pro middle linebacker remembers. ``I guess that was when I kind of discovered I had a special knack for finding my way to the ball. And it was more fun. Making the tackles is much more fun than blocking.''
Now, 10 years later, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Ryans is one of the NFL's best at his position. Houston coach Gary Kubiak has kept Ryans' workload light in training camp so far, an indication of his importance. He won't play much in Saturday's preseason opener against Denver, either.
``He's the leader of the defensive football team,'' Kubiak said. ``I think we all know that.''
Ryans was the Texans' second-round draft pick in 2006, a few months after he was chosen the SEC's defensive player of the year at Alabama. He made an instant impact in his NFL debut, leading the team with 13 tackles in a 24-10 loss to Philadelphia. He led all first-year players with 156 tackles that season, including 3.5 sacks, and was named the league's top defensive rookie.
In 2007, he made 127 tackles to lead the team for the second straight season. He also intercepted a pass and recovered three fumbles to earn a starting nod in the Pro Bowl.
Linebackers coach Johnny Holland said the Texans staff was surprised how good Ryans was as a rookie.
``DeMeco's not cocky, he's very humble,'' Holland said. ``But deep down, he's very competitive. He's really out here every day trying to do everything he can to be the best in the business. He's got all the tools.''
Just 24, Ryans is the cover boy of this year's media guide and already one of the faces of the franchise, along with 2006 top overall pick Mario Williams and star receiver Andre Johnson.
But if Ryans feels any pressure to somehow surpass his first two seasons, he hides it behind a relaxed smile and easygoing demeanor.
``I just want to continue to do what I've been doing, concentrate on trying to get better,'' he said. ``My main focus is to just try to make myself better and try to make this defense better overall. That's my only goal, just to do my part.''
While Ryans seemed to make a smooth transition from college to the pros, he said he didn't fully understand the Texans' defensive playbook until halfway through his rookie season.
Now, with the system down, he can focus on technique and scouting opposing offenses.
Ryans has earned the right to change calls that come in from the sideline, and Holland said Ryans' instincts are almost always right.
``We've found that we can give him quite a bit of responsibility, and he can handle it,'' Holland said.
Ryans has found a mentor and close friend in eight-year veteran linebacker Morlon Greenwood, whom the Texans acquired via free agency in 2005. During the season, the two spend several hours each day with coaches, poring over video of opponents. Greenwood said Ryans learns quickly.
``You have to take what you learn in the classroom and bring it out here to the field,'' Greenwood said. ``He comes out here and executes it exactly, day in and day out, no matter how much we've installed.''
Ryans also takes time each week to break down his own performances on video. Despite an All-Pro season in 2007, Ryans saw plenty that he needs to improve before this year begins.
``There are always plays that you wish you could have back,'' he said. ``The film is always going to be there. Nobody's ever going to go out and have a perfect game. You have mental busts, brain freezes, things just happen. Or you may think you really hit someone and you're the one who ends up stunned.
``I see things I do wrong all the time. I still think I can get so much better.''
Notes: Kubiak said T Ephraim Salaam is out 3-4 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Kubiak said Salaam had a ``cartilage problem'' under his kneecap. Salaam started all 16 games last season, but he's competing for his job at training camp with first-round pick Duane Brown. ... The Texans waived RB Mike Bell and signed T Torrin Tucker.

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