Mercilus ready to go, has high expectations
Willie Jefferson spent part of his Friday hiding from Texans coaches. Turns out, he didn’t need to; they weren’t looking for him.
Jefferson arrived to Reliant Stadium after a stressful morning with a simple idea: If the coaches couldn’t find him, they couldn’t cut him. And it worked! Well, he made the team, anyway.
Jefferson from Stephen F. Austin and Justin Tuggle from Kansas State were two of the four undrafted rookie free agents to survive final cuts and make the Texans’ 53-man roster.
“When I officially made the team, I was so happy,” Jefferson said. “A lot of hard work and dedication paid off.”
The big news
Jefferson spent Friday morning in a hotel room with friend and teammate Cierre Wood, who also made the team as an UDFA. The 6-5 Jefferson stared at his phone, just hoping it didn’t ring; a call from the coaches would have meant he was cut. After lifting weights at the stadium around noon, Jefferson didn’t have any missed calls, so he went to the team meeting, finally convinced he made it.
Unlike Jefferson, Tuggle did not stare at his phone. Instead, he tried to keep his normal routine. Tuggle said he didn’t really know he made the team until he went to the team meeting. “I knew if I could just make it to the meeting, hopefully I would be on the team,” he said.
Tell dad about it
After Jefferson and Tuggle were sure they made the team, both linebackers quickly told their fathers.
Tuggle didn’t have time to call his father but sent him a text message before running out to practice on Friday.
“It was a big day for me and it was a big day for him too because he’s been there with me for everything I’ve been through, high school, really my whole life,” said Tuggle, whose father, Jessie, played in the NFL for 14 seasons as a linebacker; five of those seasons were Pro Bowl years.
While Justin Tuggle just finished his first training camp as an NFL player, it wasn’t his first training camp. Far from it. See, growing up with a high-profile NFL father allowed Tuggle to be around professional football as a youngster.
“I grew up watching my dad at a young age,” Tuggle said. “I used to be out at training camp, running around the facility while he’s at practice, playing with the other kids. But I always had my eyes on what was going on. I knew this is what I wanted to do from a very young age.”
Jefferson had a list of people he wanted to call if he made the final roster. That list included his father, mother, grandmother and a few select friends. But he called his fater, Willie Jefferson Sr., first.
Jefferson Jr. started college at Baylor but left the team after two marijuana-related incidents, before finding a home and a second chance at Stephen F. Austin for his last two years of college. “A lot of old things from my past fell off my shoulders,” Jefferson said of making the roster.
Throughout that turbulent time, when Jefferson wasn’t sure if he’d get another opportunity to play football, Jefferson’s father stood by his son and offered advice, even though Jefferson Sr. was disappointed by his son’s actions.
“He was happy,” Jefferson said about his dad after telling him he made the team. “I want to say he was happier than I was. I do everything for my family and for my friends back at home. I have a lot people counting on me so I just tried to stay focused and do my best.”
Offense to defense
Tuggle and Jefferson made the Texans’ roster as linebackers but a few years ago, they were on the other side of the ball.
Tuggle, now 6-3, 247, was a quarterback heading into college. He began his collegiate career at Boston College, then played quarterback at Blinn College. From there, he went to Kansas State, where he was a backup to Collin Klein. Realizing he didn’t have much of a chance to start, Tuggle made the switch to linebacker before last season.
“You never know how things are going to turn out, but I’m glad that I made the switch when I did,” said Tuggle, who agreed that his versatility (playing inside and outside linebacker) helped him make the team. “I got some confidence and I got a little bit of experience under my belt before I got here, so it wasn’t totally new to me. I just try to learn each and every team. Every time I touch the field, I know it’s an opportunity for me to get better and I just want to make the most out of each opportunity.”
Jefferson grew up as a wide receiver and wanted to be like Randy Moss. Instead, he switched to the defensive side of the ball after his sophomore season in college and played defensive end upon his arrival to Stephen F. Austin.
“Catching touchdowns is fun,” Jefferson said, “but sacking quarterbacks and getting tackles for a loss is a lot of fun too.”
Mercilus’ injury helped
While Jefferson and Tuggle certainly deserved their roster spots after their impressive training camps and preseason games, it might not have happened if Whitney Mercilus didn’t get hurt.
Mercilus, a starter, strained his hamstring on July 29 and missed a month. In that time, Tuggle and Jefferson got more reps, even filling in with the first team. And both also got to play with the first team defense in the preseason.
“Probably on the inside they’re thinking that opportunity opened the door for them, which I think it did,” said Mercilus who compared it to when he filled in for an injured Brooks Reed last season. “Things like that happen. Guys go down and it’s just opens doors to opportunities.”
“I got a lot of experience with Whitney being down,” said Tuggle, who worked with the third-string when he arrived. “It sucks for anyone to be hurt, especially somebody on your team, but, when opportunity calls, it’s part of the game. I was just glad I was ready when the time came for me to step up.”
Wanted to be in Houston
Tuggle doesn’t even remember which other teams were interested in him after he went undrafted. Jefferson thinks he chose the Texans over the Dolphins, but he wasn’t quite sure either.
Both players wanted to be Texans.
Jefferson is from Beaumont and was a Texans fan. He found out after his pro day that the Texans were interested in him, so he started watching them on film, learning Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. Perhaps that’s why he seemed to pick it up so quickly.
The Texans were the first team that called Tuggle and he never wanted to go anywhere else.
“When I got the call and talked to (linebackers) Coach Reggie (Herring), he told me ‘if you want to come, make a name for yourself, come down here and let’s do it,’” Tuggle said, “so I took that and ran with it. I’m the type of guy, I see an opportunity, I’m going to make the most of it.”