Texans push Amobi Okoye to finish

"He's got to find another level," Texans general manager Rick Smith said of Amobi Okoye (91). Kellen Micah/Icon SMI

He came into the league especially young and filled with promise, the 10th pick in the 2007 draft.

Now, Houston Texans defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, still just 23, will no longer get snaps based on potential. His team needs production and penetration from its defensive tackles, and if he can’t provide it, coaches can turn to a new alternative.

So Okoye, who figured to be a high-ranking defensive building block with Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, will head into Texans' camp trying to cling to his role.

“He’s got to find another level and I think he understands that,” general manager Rick Smith said. “He’s got to find another level of production, he’s got to find another level of intensity, and I think he gets that. We’re expecting to see that.”

Okoye was listed at 315 pounds last season and played at around 300. He is currently 283. Is lighter the way to go? If he gives up any ability to hold the point of attack, we may well be asking if it was a smart trade-off for a bit more quickness, but he’s hoping to hold up better at a lighter weight and being quicker than his blocker.

He says he’s rejuvenated, feeling strong and more explosive.

He’s got a bulging disc in his back and lingering issues with his knees, an ankle and a shoulder. Work to his core muscles shaved some pounds and may help with those injury issues. The weight loss continued, he said, with some light running on the side with his little sister, 10-year old Chinwe, who he didn’t think had enough physical activity in her life.

“Internally I feel stronger,” he said. “You can have the looks, but your muscles may not be what it looks like on the outside.”

He had 5.5 sacks as a rookie, but only 2.5 since. That drop-off doesn’t look good, but Okoye isn’t sure it’s reflective of his play.

“Anyone you watch film with will say they’ve seen improvement from Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3,” he said. “Play-wise, it’s been good. Statistically the last two years, I’ve only had one and one-and-a-half sacks.”

He came into the league with fanfare over his youth and background, and expectations aren’t normal, he said.

“I’m not expected as a defensive tackle, I’m expected as Amobi Okoye,” he said. “I finally see the difference.”

Defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who’s entering his second season, agrees that Okoye is better, but says he hasn’t improved enough.

And toughness is the major theme.

“I watched all the games from the year before [2008] and the guys here said he needed to be a more physical player,” Kollar said. “We kept on him: ‘Hey, man you’ve got to hit, when that ball carrier is going down you’ve got to go down and get him, you’ve got to finish plays more.’ It was a big thing. He definitely did a better job, but he can do more…

“Don’t come over and stand by the guy, you’ve got to finish it off… If you don’t like getting in there and scrapping and grinding, you can’t play in this league. We’ve got to make sure when the pads are on that’s what he’s doing.”

One of the Texans' big questions is their third-down pass-rush package. Antonio Smith will continue to kick inside from end to tackle, with Connor Barwin now a lock to replace him opposite Williams. That leaves one inside spot.

And if Okoye can’t earn it, third-rounder Earl Mitchell might.

“One of those two guys will be the other guy inside,” Kollar said.

First-rounders typically get the benefit of the doubt for a good while. So I was a bit surprised that Okoye, Kollar and Smith all agreed Okoye is not certain to fit in that crucial group. Kollar isn’t even talking like Okoye is even assured of a place in the base defense.

Okoye said he doesn’t view Mitchell as a challenge but as a teammate -- one who is, incidentally, only about three months younger.

“We’re going to help each other out, I want him on the field too,” Okoye said. “I love the city, I love the team. I just want both of us to work to improve this team.

“I have inner selfishness, and I think every player should have that…. With that, I would definitely be upset with myself if I am not out there. I’m definitely going to make sure I get to be an every down player.”