HOUSTON -- Standing in front of his locker Friday morning, Texans rookie running back Dameon Pierce contemplated the question and broke into a big smile.
The conversation surrounded the presence of Tennessee Titans All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, one of the most imposing and prolific backs in the game and if that spurred further motivation for Pierce.
An emerging NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate who always displays a violent, powerful running style, Pierce and Henry will both have major roles Sunday at NRG Stadium.
For Pierce, watching accomplished backs like Henry and the strong performance last week of Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs provides further inspiration. His ambitions are set to as high a level as possible.
"Right, it just shows me and gives me what elite running backs are supposed to do in this league," Jacobs said. "That's what I got to do if I want to be elite one day. I don't get complacent. I ain't never going to stop chasing greatness. He's definitely the greatness, that's Derrick Henry. It's going to be a great matchup. It's going to be fun to watch."
Pierce has rushed for 504 yards and three touchdowns for the 1-4-1 Texans, establishing a pace for 1,428 rushing yards.
The tackle-breaking ability Pierce has shown, especially during an epic 20-yard run against the Jacksonville Jaguars, is stellar. He's broken an NFL rookie-high 38 tackles, ranking ahead of Seattle Seahawks rookie running back Kenneth Walker III, according to analytics sites.
“A lot of good things, but I think what has impressed me and everybody else is his ability to get yards after contact," Texans running backs coach Danny Barrett said. "Man, he runs through tackles. You think he’s down, and he’s five yards down the field. So, our guys, even the players, have realized you’ve got to block until the whistle with this guy. The yards after contact have probably been most impressive. His ability to finish runs like that. That’s stands out the most to me. Everything else, it comes with the territory, but guys that can finish like that. That’s a rarity.”
Pierce and Barrett have forged a strong relationship.
On Friday, early before practice began, they were doing drills together with Barrett giving instructions and keeping a watchful eye over his progress.
“That’s paying big dividends for himself," Barrett said. "The time we put in during practice and everything, he’s soaking it all up, and each week he’s progressing and getting better. I think a lot of that has to do with his work ethic and attitude. He wants it, and he’s like a sponge trying to absorb as much as he can as fast as he can.”'
Both Southerners joke about who's more country than the other. Pierce is a Bainbridge, Ga., native and a self-described country boy.
The bond with his coach is pivotal to Pierce's development, he feels.
"Probably like 98.5 (percent), the rest is on me," Pierce said. "DB, he stays on me. He won't ever let me slack. He won't let up on me. Since Day One, he said he's going to keep his foot on the gas. It's only going to help me and eventually help this team. We're going to mesh together and get this thing right."
Beyond his 75-yard touchdown where he flashed his speed against the Los Angeles Chargers, Pierce's determination and strength he showed on a 20-yard run to set up the game-winning touchdown in a road win over the Jaguars stands out the most.
“It’s one of those deals where you had to be there, or if you saw it on the replay," Barrett said. "You don’t coach that. That’s something that’s internal within the young man himself. He’s a very determined young man. He runs hard every game. That’s one of the things that we talk about postgame is his attitude, his ability to finish runs. He was determined to try and get the ball in the end zone. It’s a credit to him, his work ethic and attitude.”
Pierce ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing yards behind Nick Chubb (740 yards), Saquon Barkley (726 yards), Jacobs (633 yards), Lamar Jackson (553 yards) and Henry (536 yards).
The way he's played has resonated with his teammates and coaches, and opposing coaches.
"Strong runner, explosive cutter, puts his foot in the ground, he's got great vision," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "Whether it's the zone scheme and he stretches and cuts, he sets his blocks up extremely well. Great challenge, he's playing well."
Averaging 4.8 yards per run, Pierce is on pace to finish the season with eight touchdown runs.
Pierce has improved as a pass-catcher. He has 17 receptions for 82 yards on 19 targets. He had four catches for 25 yards on four target against the Raiders. He does a lot of work with Barrett on that aspect of the game, including an 'Around the clock" drill as he catches the football at different angles around his body.
“We spend extra time doing that, just working on route running and being where you need to be for the quarterback," Barrett said. "As you saw the other day, a lot of those are just being present for the quarterback, whether it be a checkdown or designed plays for him. His ability to catch the football is going to be key moving forward.”
A former blue-chip recruit who originally committed to Alabama, Pierce operated in a platoon system at Florida and was used sparingly by Gators coach Dan Mullen.
Pierce rushed for 574 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior, he rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 156 yards and one score. Now, Pierce is off to a fast start at the NFL level.
Of course, if he had been utilized more in college he would have been drafted higher. It all worked out for Pierce and the Texans, though.
“I left It alone. I was like, ‘you know what, whatever,'" Barrett said. "The fact that he was available for us. I don’t know. Maybe they had too much talent down there. They have a lot of talent. Florida has a lot of talent. I’m a Florida guy.
"So, you have to compete for reps. In college, it’s like anything else. You’re six or seven deep, and they try to play all of those guys. Whereas with the limited roster we’re going to ride the wave with them as long as we can but being smart also.”
Pierce emphasized that he doesn't focus on what transpired in Gainesville and his light workload. He's focused on the now.
"I use the fact that I'm here as motivation," he said. "I'm living my dream right now. I'm doing something I wanted to do since I was little. That's motivation enough for me. I don't listen to all the stats: 'What he should have did?' That's all behind me. I'm just looking forward to having a good rest of the season."
Another thing that resonates for Pierce is the realization that he belongs, that his game translates to the NFL. It's a self-fulfilling process.
"The translation from an athletic standpoint, everybody is kind of nervous about, 'Is my game going to translate to the NFL? Can I hang with these guys?'" Pierce said. "From a confidence standpoint, it's let me know I can hang. I can have success in this league. I can fit in and be one of the elite guys on the field. That's given me confidence. At the end of the day, it makes it fun."
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.