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Okoye aware of expectations


Amobi Okoye's goal is to become one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL.

Amobi Okoye intends to have more surprises for Texans fans this season.

Two years ago, he surprisingly wasn't intimidated at being the youngest player in the NFL at 19. He grabbed 5.5 sacks and was considered in some voting for rookie of the year at defensive tackle.

Another surprise came last season when ankle and knee injuries helped to bring on a rather ordinary season, especially when set alongside his first-year statistics.

So, is he at the crossroads already in only his third NFL season? He's heard criticism that maybe the Texans made a mistake in drafting him No. 1. He's heard that he isn't helping the Texans get a better rush.

Is there another surprising turnaround?

"He looks better physically and he's in a better place mentally, so I think he'll come back stronger," defensive coordinator Frank Bush said. "He set the bar kind of high his rookie year. He was a young kid, came into the league at 19. He made some plays and we felt the sky was the limit.

{QUOTE}"I think what happened last year, he was trying very hard to make things happen and things didn't work out. He got nicked up a little. But that's the league. That's what happens."

Okoye made the Texans look smart his rookie season. He had 32 tackles and a forced fumble. And what a first month of pro ball he had. Okoye had four sacks in three consecutive games and earned rookie of the month honors.

Then, gravity set in. The weight of his first pro season, much longer than he was accustomed to in college, took its toll. Okoye had 1.5 sacks the rest of the season. He was gassed.

He took three months off to recover and what followed in his second season was an unpleasant surprise for the Texans and for Okoye.

"Coming out of that rookie year, it's such a long year," Okoye said. "I'm sure Brian Cushing (current No. 1 pick) will tell you the same thing. It's already a long year for him. The whole year was long for me.

"After the season, you kind of want to take a break. So I took three months off and didn't do anything until I was forced to do something.

"I came to realize that wasn't a good idea."

Okoye decided for sure that he'd made a bad decision when he attended the Pro Bowl in February, as a spectator. He saw the work that had gone into the players making the honorary game. He wanted to be more than an observer.

"He's taken heed to the coaching," Bush said. "He's ambitious again. He did go to the Pro Bowl. I was there with him. He saw some guys and thought if he could compete at a certain level, he could be recognized with these guys.

"He got hungry. He got ambitious again. He's working his butt off. We'll see."

Okoye doesn't pretend he hasn't heard the criticism.

"I'd be lying if I said none of it bothers me," he said. "That would be a straight up lie. Regardless, they are talking about you and you know. Even though you avoid it, it's going to come to you some way or somehow. My way of dealing with it, I don't listen too much to it.

"What I care about is the criticism my coaches give me and the ones from my family and high school coaches. Those mean a lot to me. What they say is what I believe.

"The way I criticize myself, that's also a big deal to me. Those are the ones that go deep into the heart."

The Texans are pulling for Okoye to increase the learning curve.

"I just think we need to continue to see him be active," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Obviously, we would like to get more pass rush out of him than we got last year. I think he's much healthier than he was last year and he's got more help across the front than he's had.

"I just want to see him step up and make some plays. That's his game: quickness and coming off the ball."

Defensive line coach Bill Kollar wants to see that quickness work in the Texans' favor.

"He's got quickness, no doubt about it, but you've got to use it to your advantage, getting off and getting into the blocker before the guy has a chance to get you," Kollar said.

Are we there yet?

"We're not there at this time," Kollar said. "He needs to keep getting better and play full speed on every snap. We're working at it. It's not one of those things that's easy to end up doing. We're just hoping that he keeps getting better and gets to that point."

Okoye is hoping his body responds to the added workout load.

"I don't like to talk about injuries and make excuses," he said. "I'm still battling some of them, which are my knees. Some days they feel good and some days they are aching and you can't roll the way you want to roll."

Despite the drop off in sacks, Okoye doesn't see last season as a total loss.

"I had one sack, so statistically last year was a bad year, but play-wise I felt I did get better at recognition and knowing what to expect," he said. "Sometimes I probably analyzed too much and it slowed me down. Some of those habits are still lingering but with time those are going to go."

Bush expects it to be soon.

"More than anything this year, we are looking for consistency," Bush said. "We're expecting the guy to show up every Sunday and make the plays he's supposed to make. His special plays will come, but more than anything, we're looking for consistency.

"We don't want him to have an up-and-down game or an up-and-down season."

Bush, starting his first year as defensive coordinator, hopes to help Okoye use his quickness.

"We're going to do some things similar, but we're going to allow him to get off the ball and try to create some havoc," Bush said. "We want to do some things in the sense that not just allow him to have to hunker down inside all the time but allow him to get off and give him some movement."

Okoye needs to have a good season for himself and for the team.

"My expectations are that I need to have a good year for me to be happy," Okoye said. "Happiness for me is football. I'm married to the pigskin. When it's not going the way I want it to be, I won't be happy."

Kollar has the secret to a happy pigskin marriage.

"I tell him, 'The only way you can get people off of you is by doing it on the field. That's what it comes down to. As soon as you start playing like everyone expects you to play, they are going to stop getting on you and start saying what a good player you are.'

"Right now it's a work in progress and we're just trying to get better."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams.

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