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Your Texans: Defensive tackles


Like this Texans' defense overall, tackle Amobi Okoye has come a long way in a short time. That's particularly true in Okoye's case.

At least he can breathe in that claustrophobic helmet now.

Just a few short years ago, Okoye came over from Nigeria with little knowledge of American football – or its trappings.

"The first thing was the helmet," Okoye said of his initial encounter with football equipment at age 13 at Robert E. Lee High School in Huntsville, Ala. "I put the helmet on and I felt like I couldn't breathe.

"I really felt like I was about to suffocate because it just felt so abnormal."

Okoye never had seen a football game when he came here, and getting accustomed to the equipment was quite a problem at first.

"My coaches used to tell me just stick with it, stick with it," Okoye said of that infernal first helmet. "They said it was going to be all right. I just kept pushing it forward and finally got used to it."

Now helmets suit Okoye just fine, especially the ones he plants in quarterbacks. The rookie first-round pick showed how far he has come by registering four sacks his first four games NFL games.

{QUOTE}But that little helmet story is probably a good illustration of just how young the Texans' front four is this season. The defensive tackles are the 20-year-old Okoye and 25-year old Travis Johnson, who is in his third season in the NFL.

They are as indicative of the D-line as they are of this up-and-coming team. And they all feel each other's pain.

"We've got a lot of young talent on the defense and on the team as a whole," Johnson said. "We're just excited for each other, excited for the obstacles we have to overcome when we succeed. I think that's the biggest joy of the team is that everybody is excited for each other."

Johnson especially likes watching the talented Okoye.

"It's good to have a young guy like Amobi in there with his 20-year-old legs," Johnson said. "A guy who is even younger than I am."

Johnson has had two unspectacular years after being chosen in the first round in 2005. But he and the coaches believe this could be his season.

"I feel the third year should be the charm for me," Johnson said. "My third year in college was my best year and I think it will be here, too. I've started all the games and I feel my productivity is up, so hopefully my third year here will be even better than my third year in college was."

Still, he doesn't expect to be an overnight star.

"I really feel like I'm kind of the unknown guy," he said. "I just want to try to come to work and make the other guys better. When you're playing in a line with Mario (Williams) and Amobi, you're not going to get noticed a lot.

"It's like when you used to choose up sides when you were young and they'd pick you and say you'll be the nose guard. It's just grind work. You don't really play it for recognition. You just get your satisfaction if the middle linebacker makes it to the Pro Bowl."

Still, Johnson might be bucking for similar honors if he plays the way he did last week at Jacksonville. Coach Gary Kubiak called it Johnson's best game. But Johnson won't let such statements go to his head.

"You take it with a grain of salt," Johnson said of Kubiak's praise. "You've got to get better. I mean, look what I've got to base it off of. I hadn't had too many good ones since I've been here, so I guess it's all right. It's a good compliment.

"I've just got to continue to get better."

In the meantime, Johnson is quickly getting better at expressing himself.

"He's the mouth of the team," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said with a laugh. "He keeps everybody going. Travis is always talking. If you want to know about anything, not just football, ask Travis and he has something to say about it."

While his teammates enjoy it, Johnson is unsure of the value of such a label.

"That's my biggest compliment and my biggest flaw," Johnson said, "because sometimes I talk too much. But I'll be all right."

This week, for instance, Johnson tried to explain that special quality Tennessee quarterback Vince Young has.

"He's a winner. He has 'it,'" Johnson said. "That's all you can say about him. You can't say he's the greatest quarterback. You can't say he's the greatest running back and you can't say he's the greatest receiver.

"He just has 'it.' And that's a big thing in this league, because if you've got 'it,' you can do a whole lot of things."

And hoping not to get into a Laurel and Hardy comedy skit, you press boldly forward and ask what exactly is "it"?

"'It' is 'it,'" Johnson says impatiently. "Everybody knows what 'it' is. It's a capital I, capital T. He's just got 'it.' Some guys got it, some guys don't."

Which pretty much says it all.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Carley is a veteran Houston sportswriter who has covered the NFL for more than 25 years. He has worked for such newspapers as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the National Sports Daily covering such teams as the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders.

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