Ross Blacklock explosively looped around blockers on a stunt, penetrating the backfield with a powerful, crisp rip move.
Unlike a year ago during his rookie season, Blacklock wasn’t overthinking. He wasn’t slowing down and he didn’t have internal and external forces halting his progress.
The Texans’ defensive tackle and former second-round draft pick from Texas Christian University has made significant strides in his game and mentality following a disappointing first season in the NFL. Blacklock experienced a tough transition to everything about the NFL, dealing with the pressures of being the Texans’ top draft pick and earning the respect of older teammates. He was ejected from a game against the Baltimore Ravens for throwing a punch. That drew a stinging public rebuke for the Elkins graduate from legendary defensive end J.J. Watt, who is now with the Arizona Cardinals.
A year later, Blacklock has matured and is happier with everything in his life. That includes adopting a stricter diet and training regimen. He hired a personal chef and lost roughly 10 pounds to get down to 290 pounds.
Blacklock is obviously faster on the field and his physique looks different. He’s much leaner than a year ago.
The toughest change?
“I used to be a real candy guy,” Blacklock said. “I haven't eaten candy in months. Sugars, juices, stuff like that. I got a chef this year, so that’s the first time I ever got a chef, and he's been real strict on my diet and cooks some really good food. So, I'm real strict on myself about that, but it's paid off really well.”
“Man, I just worked out a lot. I did a lot of training. I went from two-a-day trainings to training in California, just getting new scenery, and working out a lot, working on my body. Just trying to get more cut, I guess, upper body-wise. Cut a lot of stuff out of my diet, I'm restricting my diet. I feel good with my weight. I feel I can move real well. Just got to keep stacking on days.”
Blacklock is energized about the Texans’ shift to a 4-3 attacking scheme being installed by new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.
And the Texans are juiced up by how Blacklock has performed at training camp.
“He's playing fast,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He's a little bit more comfortable right now than he was last year although it's a new system. He's flying around, and you see that.”
The son of former Harlem Globetrotters player and coach Jimmy Blacklock didn’t have a lot of highlights as a rookie. A former All-Big 12 Conference selection, Blacklock played in 15 games with one start and finished with 14 tackles, one for a loss and two quarterback hits. His playing time was relatively limited. Operating in a rotation, Blacklock played 255 plays for just 23 percent of the overall defensive snaps.
Now, Blacklock is expected to rotate with veteran Maliek Collins at the Texans’ three-technique defensive tackle position.
“I think it's just the system that I'm in now, it's more of a reactive system, more able to use my instincts,” Blacklock said. “I'm loving it, man. Everybody is flying around, making plays. I just feel more comfortable in this system. I think it will be real good for me, and not only me, but for the team as well. Just for the guys we have, the players we have, just to be able to unleash those type of instincts that we have and go create havoc.”
Signed to a four-year contract worth $7.95 million and includes over $4.92 million guaranteed, Blacklock hated the losing that went with a 4-12 season.
“I had my tough moments and frustrations and my good moments,” Blacklock said. “It’s just all about learning. I know I’m not going to have all the answers my first year. I think when it all develops, I’ll be a pretty good player. One thing I learned is you’ve got to keep working.
“When you’re around the best of the best, there’s always room for improvement. I’ve always prided myself on trying to be the best I can be and just never get down on myself. I know that it’s always an improvement year and an improvement league. As long as you’re seeing improvement, don’t beat yourself up.”
During his final season at TCU before declaring early for the draft, Blacklock recorded 40 tackles, nine for losses and 3 ½ sacks. A former freshman All-American and Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, Blacklock overcame a torn Achilles as a sophomore and finished his career with 67 tackles, 15 ½ for losses and 5 ½ sacks.
Blacklock finished his TCU career with 67 tackles, 15 ½ for losses and 5 ½ sacks in two full seasons. A former freshman All-American and Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, Blacklock had 27 tackles, 6 1/2 for losses and two sacks in 14 starts in his first season for the Horned Frogs.
“I expect a lot out of him,” Texans defensive line coach Bobby King said. “He’s been as advertised with the weight staff, with everybody so far and with me. I look forward to working with Ross.”
After Romeo Crennel was named interim coach and Bill O’Brien was fired following an 0-4 start, Crennel said that the adjustment to the Texans’ 3-4 defensive system emphasizing gap integrity was one reason why Blacklock wasn’t more productive in his first NFL season.
“Man, just trust myself, trust my instincts, trust my abilities, don't second guess anything, and just be able to use my abilities to the best as I can,” Blacklock said. “Just go out there and just have fun and play. Just take all the thinking out of it.
“I think I put too much thinking into it last year. I was trying to perfect everything at one time knowing that I couldn't really do that. It just made it harder for myself. It’s more of a marathon, not a sprint. I don't know all the answers still, and I'm still trying to learn them, but it's slowly getting there. It’s getting there.”
Blacklock is encouraged by his conversations with new Texans coach David Culley and the rest of the coaching staff.
“I’ve talked to coach David a couple of times, good dude, very humble, very kind, very caring about his job,” Blacklock said. “It sounds like he loves what he does. It’s exciting to bring that energy into the building. I feel like that’s what we needed.
“Unfortunately last year, we had to and I had to experience a lot of things and saw some things. It opened up my eyes to a lot of things to keep learning. It’s all good.”
And playing for Smith in an aggressive scheme feels like familiar territory for Blacklock.
It’s more akin to what he did in college.
“I’m versatile, I can play wherever they need me,” he said. “The opportunity is always there. I’m just excited for the opportunity. I know there are a lot of guys we’ve got in the rotation. I want to be one of those guys. I’m just excited to see where everybody ends up and how this team does. I’m definitely ready to compete.
“This is a better situation for guys. We've got a lot of really good pass rushers. Guys can just go and just rush up field, use a move. It's not really like a one-system thing. Guys can get out of their comfort zone and try new stuff and new moves, as well as myself. So, I'm excited to see what everybody has for the season and get to unleash some new tricks.”
A year ago, Blacklock was consumed by his mind. Now, he’s feeling more confident and comfortable and can just be himself. He’s finding out that is enough for him and the Texans.
“It was just unfortunate situations,” Blacklock said. “Some guys got hurt and I had to step in and play. There was a lot of thinking that I had to do. Sometimes I would overthink, not overthink, but I would be in one position and think about another and I would just overthink my thought process as I’m in my stance. Now it's just go out and play, just get off the ball.
“I probably have one of the best get-offs on the D-line, and I know that a lot of guys trust my get-off, and we can make a lot of plays together. I've just got to trust my instincts, just go out and have fun and just play. It's football at the end of the day, so just got to go out and do what I've been doing since I was young.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128