HOUSTON — Daniel Lasco took a long time to leave the practice field Thursday.
First, he made sure to find his grandparents. Then a few friends from his high school days from The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston. Before he got off the field, Lasco stopped and chatted with Houston Texans tight end Stephen Anderson, a former teammate at California.
Everything felt like home. Five long years have passed since Lasco last played football in his home state, and the Saints rookie running back has been champing at the bit to get to the joint practices with the Texans in Houston this week.
"I had a good amount of people out there at practice," Lasco said. "I found the majority of them. ... So it was good to see some friendly faces."
The joint practices have given his family a rare opportunity to see him in their backyard. Lasco lost out on his only chance to play in the state of Texas in college.
When Jared Goff and the rest of Lasco's Cal teammates made the trip down to Austin last September for a thrilling, program-validating 45-44 win over the Texas Longhorns, Lasco was sidelined with a hip injury.
"That kind of sat real hard on me," Lasco said. "I always wanted to play in my home state. Now I get that opportunity."
Lasco's family and friends saw the rookie running back take several snaps with the Saints starters against the Texans defense Thursday, in part so New Orleans could rest Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller, and in part so the Saints could see how the rookie holds up against a tough, physical defense.
Lasco has been up to every challenge so far.
"He’s a guy who’s big, he can run, he’s very competitive," Ingram said. "I think he’s going to be a special player in this league.
Built solidly at 6-foot-1 and more than 205 pounds, Lasco has played bigger and tougher than the reputation he built in an injury-plagued career at Cal. Drafted in the seventh round with an eye on special teams, Lasco has pleasantly surprised the Saints with his all-around game.
"He’s a tough, physical runner," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "But I think he’s done a really good job at whatever we’ve asked him to do. I’d describe him as just a tough, hard-nosed football player. Whatever we ask him to do, run the ball, block, run down on special teams, he’s willing to do. You just get the feeling that he loves football."
That love of football is part of the fabric of Lasco's home state. The Texas high school football culture routinely produces recruits who are more polished than the rest of the country, in part because of the premium placed on high school football in all corners of the state.
And for Lasco to make a Saints roster that is chock-full of players at running back, he has to be well-rounded. New Orleans drafted Lasco in large part because of his proficiency on special teams. He's also proven to be an adept pass protector for a rookie, and he's got good hands.
He's trying to make the most of his chances.
"I’m here for a reason, and when I get thrown out there with the ones or whatever it is, (I tell myself) don’t get too crazy and amped up and lose my momentum," Lasco said.
Lasco turned in a solid opener. The rookie picked up 18 yards on five carries and caught three passes for 23 yards against the Patriots.
"I’m going to get more carries in this game," Lasco said. "I’ve just got to improve on what I did last week."
Staying calm might be the key. Lasco will have a massive cheering section in NRG Stadium on Saturday night, full of people who want to see him succeed.
"It’s an honor," Lasco said. "It’s a blessing, having your family up in the stands supporting you, seeing all your hard work pay off."
Especially this close to home.