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HOUSTON When the Houston Texans hired Wade Phillips as their new defensive coordinator in January, Shaun Cody wanted to know immediately what that meant for him.

The 6-foot-4, 304-pound Cody is expected to start at nose tackle this season, a pivotal position in Phillips 3-4 scheme. Cody had plenty of questions about his new role, and Phillips reassured him that he was good enough and big enough to handle it.

He gave me the rundown, Cody said. He said, We ve had small guys play this position, big guys play this position, and we ve been successful both ways. He had confidence in me, and we ll see what happens.

Cody, entering his seventh NFL season and third with Houston, had a career-high 38 tackles in the Texans 4-3 scheme in 2010. The Texans signed him to a two-year contract in March, another sign that the coaching staff believes in him.

One of the reasons I m back here is that it s pretty similar to what I was doing last year, Cody said. I was successful at that, so that was a reason why they brought me back.

Cody has the inside track to start over Earl Mitchell. The 6-3, 291-pound Mitchell is opening his second NFL season, and defensive line coach Bill Kollar says he s been less consistent than Cody early in training camp.

Antonio Smith and first-round draft pick J.J. Watt are expected to man the defensive end spots. Smith played in a 3-4 earlier in his career and had four sacks playing defensive end opposite Mario Williams last year.

Antonio, when he was outside, it was a little different for him, Kollar said. He likes being more inside, with the quick moves and all that kind of stuff. I know he likes playing this kind of defense better than the one we had.

Watt, meanwhile, has impressed the coaches with his rapid adjustment to the pro game.

J.J. Watt is stepping up and being a starter right now, Phillips said. We didn t see that early. You know, usually you don t step in and be a starter, but he s come in and really accepted the role.

The 6-5, 290-pound Watt led Wisconsin in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and blocked kicks in 2010. The lockout robbed rookies of the chance to get head starts over the summer, but Watt feels like he s kept pace and has a good handle on Phillips defense.

I haven t been overwhelmed at all, really, Watt said. I feel really comfortable with it and I think that just comes from studying it hard. I know that I m penciled in as a starter right now, and that means I can t have any mental mistakes on the field, so I ve tried to avoid those at all costs.

Smith has taken Watt under his wing and shared some of the nuances of the position.

He works hard. He s a dog, Smith said. He s got some quickness, he s got some power, he plays with leverage, good hands and he s got some of the raw talents that you would need to be a great defensive lineman in this game.

Coach Gary Kubiak can already tell that Watt has earned the respect of the veterans.

When your teammates call you a dog after about a week, Kubiak said, that s a compliment, so I m looking forward to him. He s been very good in camp and we re excited. We feel good about him.

The Texans ranked last in pass defense last season, and 23rd in total sacks (30). Williams, the team s sacks leader in each of the last five seasons, moved to outside linebacker, though he s often moved up to the line of scrimmage in practices.

Kollar says Smith and Watt are assigned to handle interior blockers and create opportunities for Williams and Connor Barwin, the other outside linebacker.

The defensive ends are sort of playing like defensive tackles, because they re playing so much inside, Kollar said. The outside linebackers are going to be the sack guys. Your inside guys, man, they ve got to grind it up inside and everything else.

The first true test for the linemen and the entire rebuilt defense comes in the preseason opener against the New York Jets on Monday night. Kollar says the coaches are looking for energy as much as proper technique.

Show that you re ready to play, play as hard as you can play, Kollar said. We re not looking for guys who just eat up a gap. We want guys who come off blocks and make plays. They ve known that ever since we started meeting a couple of weeks ago.

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