It has only been practice, but these are such better sessions than they once were that Texans training camp is, dare we say, entertaining?

Of course, we’re sitting here talking about practice, but until something real happens — like a season that results in a trip to the playoffs — we at least can credit Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak with providing us a suitable substitute for a dismal MLB team this miserably hot August.

Not too long ago the Texans were so short on talent that you could hardly even talk about practice. The only good barbershop debate involving the team was about David Carr’s hair.

Smith hadn’t been general manager long enough for his payroll direct deposits to kick in when he got his first look at the Texans at practice. All he could do was shake his head.

The Texans were weak at a host of positions: all of the defensive ones and all the offensive ones.

Smith shakes his head now when he thinks back to his freshman season here.

“I got the job in June, so it was at a minicamp, and I was standing out on the field with (owner Bob) McNair, and I said, ‘A year from now, we’re going to be a better team. Two years from now, we’ll be even better. But in three or four years, we’ll walk out on this field, and I’ll be able show you what an NFL team looks like and how they function,’ ” Smith said. “I feel like we’re that functioning NFL team now. We look like a good football team.”

Relax. Looks can’t prove to be deceiving until the regular season begins, so aside from injuries don’t put too much into what happens in the desert tonight when the Texans play their first preseason game at Arizona.

(Speaking of injuries, Kubiak knows a heck of a lot more about his players than anyone else, but unless there is a monetary bonus involved — and a substantial one at that — it makes little sense to play Mario Williams in this meaningless dress rehearsal. Is Williams, who has been slowed by a sore hip throughout camp, really going to get something out of this game that could make a difference during the season?)

Battle at running back

The competition at running back might take center stage as it did in Kubiak’s first camp. Unlike then, however, the battle is to find who will perform the best, not who won’t perform the worst.

Former Houston Cougar Antowain Smith, at the end of a very solid NFL career, started Kubiak’s first preseason game at tailback. He was released a few weeks later and never played in the league again.

None of the other running backs on the Texans’ roster competing for a spot at the time — Vernand Morency and rookies Wali Lundy, Chris Taylor and Damien Rhodes — played a single down in the league last year. Taylor, who saw action in three games for the Texans in 2008 and is trying out for the Patriots, is the only one of the group to play in the league at all in the past two years.

The Texans have questions at running back, but they should have answers.

Arian Foster, who will start tonight, closed last season with a 119-yard effort against the Patriots and has looked even better this summer. Can he carry it over to a game?

Current second-teamer Steve Slaton rushed for more yards as a rookie in 2008 than Kubiak’s first stable of backs have since ’06. After a sluggish season and a neck injury that required surgery, he wants his job back. Can he earn it?

Chris Henry, who has played with more energy than anyone in camp, probably won’t be in the mix when the season starts, but he and Jeremiah Johnson should make tonight’s fourth quarter worth watching.

Second-round pick Ben Tate, the highest running back draft pick in team history, is expected to see the bulk of the playing time in the middle quarters. The Texans need him to show he is a gamer, if not necessarily a practice star.

‘We look good’

Kubiak used the phrases “up-and-down,” “learning how to be a pro,” and “continue to grow up,” when talking about Tate this week. The spotlight will be on the rookie, who gets yelled at every now and then in practice.

Kubiak didn’t do a lot of yelling in ’06. It wasn’t going to help much.

Did we mention that David Carr was the quarterback?

“We were new (to the team), we had to teach guys how to practice, had to get better athletes, etc.,” Smith said. “All of the things that encompasses what a good team looks like, we had to put in place. Now, we look good.”

At least in practice. And that’s an improvement.