In an early training-camp session Don Trull threw a ball 50 yards through the air into the hands of a receiver crossing the goal line, and Coach Bones Taylor smiled the way he used to when he was catching them from Sammy Baugh for the Washington Redskins. Baugh, who was standing nearby, smiled, too. Baugh was the coach of the Oilers when Trull was a rookie and now is an assistant to Taylor, who was an assistant to Baugh. If that sounds confusing, it is merely the way Oiler Owner Bud Adams does things—he has employed five head coaches and two general managers in six seasons. Trull could contribute to Taylor's and Baugh's job security. If the Oilers are an improved team Trull probably will deserve much of the credit. As a rookie in 1964 the former Baylor All-America had one disastrous flaw. He could not throw the deep pass, without the threat of which an offense has a hard time moving consistently. With off-season exercise and added maturity, Trull's arm has become stronger, and he can now throw deep with accuracy and confidence. Combining that new ability with his quickness and intelligence, Trull looks ready to step in and replace George Blanda. Not that Blanda is prepared to give up. For the last two years Blanda has been the Houston quarterback on the strength of his personality as much as on his capability. He is still the team leader and could even be the next Oiler coach when Adams strikes again. At 37, Blanda is at an age when an athlete can suddenly find himself finished, and Trull looks ready to repay the Oilers' $100,000 investment in him.
Trull is an excellent scrambler, a talent Blanda could have used the past two years to overcome some leaky pass blocking. The blocking, however, will be better this season. Lou Rymkus, another former Oiler head coach, has returned to the staff to work with the offensive line. In his first hitch at Houston, Rymkus put together a front line that was the best in the AFL for two years. In Norman Evans, a rookie from TCU, Rymkus believes he has the finest rookie tackle prospect ever with the Oilers. That is good news not only for Trull and Blanda but also for Houston's thin corps of running backs. The best one the Oilers have, and one of the best in the league, is 210-pound Sid Blanks. As a rookie last season Blanks was fourth in the AFL in rushing with a 5.2 average for 756 yards and was seventh in receiving. Ode Burrell, who missed most of his rookie year because of an injury, is back to try again. But the most important addition to the team is Fullback Jack Spikes, who was released by Kansas City. Spikes, a 220-pound six-year veteran, is a better fullback than he has shown the last two years. He is delighted to be in Houston and has been running and blocking well in exhibition games. He could be the man to replace little Charley Tolar, who was outgained by all but one AFL fullback last season.
As a target, Trull and Blanda once again have Flanker Charlie Hennigan and nobody could demand much more. The trouble last year was that the Oilers depended on Hennigan too much. He caught 101 passes for a pro record and was thrown at 268 times, which reveals an obvious lack of balance in the Oiler offense. Swift Charlie Frazier, rookie Flanker Lawrence Elkins and a more effective running game should remedy that imbalance (although Elkins will be out until mid-season because of a knee injury).
Defensively, the Oilers have settled second-year man Scott Appleton at tackle, where he will probably displace either 36-year-old Bud McFadin or 33-year-old Ed Husmann. The linebacking will be good if Johnny Baker and Danny Brabham stay healthy. Rookie Linebacker Bobby Maples is a quality player but has a history of injuries. All-AFL Corner Back Tony Banfield returns after knee surgery and will complete a satisfactory secondary.
The Oilers used 12 rookies last year and will benefit from their experience. This is the Oilers' first season in Rice Stadium—they gave up on the Dome after a battle over contract terms—and although they have little chance at the championship they should move up one position from their fourth-place finish of 1964.