Ross Blacklock spoke bluntly and honestly Tuesday morning about his difficult rookie experience.
Blacklock endured a frustrating year consumed by overthinking, adapting to the pressures of being the Texans’ top draft pick last season and working to earn the respect of older teammates.
The Elkins graduate and former second-round draft pick from Texas Christian hasmade significant strides in his game and mentality following his rough introduction to the NFL.
Blacklock experienced a tough transition. He was ejected from a game against the Baltimore Ravens for throwing a punch. That drew a stinging public rebuke from legendary defensive end J.J. Watt, who is now with the Arizona Cardinals, as the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year called his actions "stupid" and "selfish."
It stung Blacklock to be called out by such a respected player.
One year later, a significantly leaner, quicker Blacklock is hitting stride as a player and is happier with himself, his fit within the locker room and how the Texans are being run by coach David Culley, general manager Nick Caserio and defensive coordinator
“I could say the vibe and the energy is better,” Blacklock said Tuesday following a steaming-hot training camp practice."The culture here is a lot better. There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good guys around here, great team. Coach Culley, coach Lovie Smith has brought in a culture that's just all about the team. Each and every day is about team and I think guys are gravitating to it. We got the right guys in the locker room and make sure everybody is just one band, one sound, type of thing. ..
“Guys are just trusting each other, more respecting and understanding of each other and you'll see it together as we play. No guy is selfish on this team. Everything is about team, team, team. We try to preach that every day and embed into ourselves every day and just go with 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.
A year later, Blacklock is playing with a lot more confidence and displayed that improvement during a preseason victory over the Green Bay Packers. He attributes the upgraded comfort level to his coaches and his teammates.
“Definitely the coaches, they start with the coaches because they got to set the tone of how they want this organization to be run and then second of all we have to be the guys that enforce it within the players and throughout the building,” Blacklock said. “So, we have the perfect guys in here to bring that energy. It's been nothing but good energy. I don't think there's been one day where guys have fallen out or not been with the type of mantra we're trying to build. Each day it's getting better and better and that's what we want to see.”
The Texans’ defense forced three turnovers during a 26-7 win at Lambeau Field. The defense looked much more aggressive in its new 4-3 alignment, a shift from the 3-4.
“I was very encouraged to see everybody flying around making plays,” Blacklock said. “Just everybody get an opportunity to show like what they can do when times are needed. I think the team played great, offense moved the ball, defense played hands down really well. So we just got to keep stacking and building from there. ..
“I think I was just playing more faster, reacting more and just getting off the ball, and just like I said, just trusting my instinct and trusting my abilities and just going out there and just doing my best.”
Blacklock has improved his technique, his ability to get out of his stance and shed blocks. His work with private defensive line coach, Brandon Jordan, is paying dividends.
“Shout-out to my dog,” Blacklock said of Jordan, who’s spending training camp working with the Arizona Cardinals.
In a 4-3 defense as a three-technique rotating with former Dallas Cowboys and Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Maliek Collins, Blacklock doesn’t have to ponder as much. He can go chase the football.
“The defense we have is more of an attack defense,” Blacklock said. “ There's not a lot of thinking. Of course it's preseason but the past game we ran base majority of the game but like a lot of our calls are not like real calls you've got to think on so hard, and like, if I got this, I got to do that and that. No. It's just okay, I got the call, boom, it's a one-deal thing, you know what I'm saying. And it creates more natural stuff for the ends and tackles if y'all want to run games or do certain stuff. As D-linemen you're not supposed to think as much, just go. That's what I like about this defense.”
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.
As the Texans play the Dallas Cowboys this weekend, it represents something of a homecoming for Blacklock after playing his college ball in Arlington.
“It's almost like home sweet home, like my second home,” Blacklock said. “But it's straight business.”
Older teammates see a big difference in Blacklock. Every day, they’re witnessing growth from him.
“More confidence, more confidence in his abilities,” defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. “Taking advantage of it, he looks really explosive, really fast. That's all that I see from him. He'll make some great plays.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.