Okoye ready to earn his way onto the field

BY foxsports • July 27, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye walked off the field on his first day of Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp workouts, feeling right at home in the brutal heat and humidity.

For the 2007 No. 1 pick of the Houston Texans, the uncomfortable weather was nothing new.

“It was hot, but I don’t think it’s hotter than or more humid than Houston,” Okoye said. “Four years out there definitely prepped me for any type of hot and humid weather more than the cold weather in Chicago. I think my body is like, ‘Ahh, we’ve seen this before.’ ”

Getting used to a new routine with a new team is something Okoye has seen before, too, first with the Texans, last season with the Bears and now the Bucs under first-year head coach Greg Schiano.

And with the unexpected trade Thursday of starting tackle Brian Price to Chicago, Okoye suddenly finds himself contending for a possible starting role in Tampa Bay, or certainly the likelihood of increased playing time.

But Okoye, coming off of arthroscopic knee surgery in June, is taking everything in stride.

“I don’t think (Price’s departure) changes anything as far as the team goes,” he said. “As far as the D-line goes, we know what we’re all up against (with) competition. Changes happen in the NFL. This is my third team. I suggest that every player should go through at least two or three teams, because it really does a lot for you. I just think — I wouldn’t necessarily use the word humble — but it tests your mental state.”

Okoye’s mental state has been tested plenty since coming into the NFL as the 10th overall draft pick out of the University of Louisville. An excellent student who skipped several grades and passed up a Harvard scholarship, Okoye was the NCAA’s youngest senior at age 19 and was picked higher than any other Louisville player since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

But in spite of equally high expectations, Okoye never materialized as the dominant player many thought he would become with Houston. He had a promising rookie season with 5.5 sacks and 32 tackles, with a Defensive Rookie of the Month honor in September 2007 (at 20, the youngest player to win the award).

But his productivity declined the next two seasons with 2.5 sacks and 62 tackles combined. And though he started every game in 2009 and 2010, upping his sack total to three with a career-high 44 tackles in ’10, Okoye was released.

He latched on with the Bears, starting only one game but playing in all 16 (seeing action on about 50 percent of the snaps) and had a solid season with four sacks and 27 tackles.

This past offseason, general manager Mark Dominik — hoping to beef up Tampa Bay’s defensive line — didn’t hesitate to sign Okoye with a one-year, $1.3 million contract and give him a fresh start.

“I think I’ve definitely had a solid career when you look at statistics,” said Okoye, no relation to former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye. “Just looking at the play. Do I want to be a Pro Bowl player? Without a doubt. Anybody who steps on this field and doesn’t want to be a Pro Bowl player is definitely doing this for the wrong reason. I think being a Top 10 pick, everybody expects you to be a Pro Bowl player. And when you don’t make that, you guys (the media) have criticism and all that. (But) the start of my career I think has been a very solid career thus far.”

Okoye wasn’t expected to take part in workouts this quickly, since the Bucs had placed him Thursday on the active physically unable to perform list. But he felt good enough to come off just in time for the start of camp.

“It’s coming along,” he said. “I tried to avoid the scope, but everything was pointing in that direction so we went ahead and did it. (There was) enough time for me to get ready to come out here and participate in camp. Not 100 (percent), but it’s much better than it was before the scope.”

With Price out of the picture, the grizzled six-year vet at only 25 will compete with Roy Miller and Gary Gibson for the right to line up alongside Gerald McCoy. But the Bucs have a history of giving three tackles virtually equal playing time, so Okoye may get plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills.

Schiano’s defensive scheme features one difference from seasons past, with the emphasis on a nose guard along with a tackle, “instead of just playing left tackle and right tackle,” he explained Friday. Okoye, Miller and Gibson will see action in both roles.

“Guys are going to have to cross-train,” Schiano added. “With the limited numbers in pro football, you have to have cross-over backups, so they will. You always would like to have more depth, but I feel comfortable. I think what we do is going to help both of them (Miller and Okoye) in the scheme. I think Gary is going to be good in the scheme as well.”

Okoye welcomes the chance to make a contribution and doesn’t regard himself as the starter in the new configuration. “No, not at all,” he said. “It’s something you’ve still got to earn out here. So we’re all out there competing.”

For now, he feels good about where he is at this stage in his winding NFL journey.

“It’s been climbing up a ladder,” he said. “That ladder has been at Reliant Stadium. It’s been at Soldier Field. And it’s here now. It doesn’t matter where that ladder is, as long as you keep on climbing.”

NOTES:Schiano was pleased with the first official training camp workout of his new regime. “Good first day,” he said. “Guy’s put forth great effort, not only today but yesterday in meetings and now we get into the grind and just reload and do it again and meet and sleep and practice and eat and practice and meet and that’s training camp. We need to make sure it’s productive and efficient and that we’re getting better every step of the way.”

As for the Price trade, Schiano said that the defensive tackle’s inability to pass the rigorous fitness test Thursday wasn’t the final straw. (Players were required to complete 16 110-yard wind sprints and Price managed only four). “I look at things as there’s never any one factor, unless there’s a such a heinous thing, (and) you hope you never have to deal with that,” the coach said. “I look at everybody’s body of work and are they a fit for the Buccaneers, what we’re trying to be, who we’re trying to be? Just because you’re not a fit for us, doesn’t mean you’re not a fit for somebody else. We just thought at that time, Mark (Dominik) and I, we felt like the best thing for him and the best thing for us was to find a new place – and it worked out well.”

For what it’s worth, wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe also flunked the test and was waived, but missing voluntary workouts this spring certainly didn’t help his cause.

…There are no more two-a-day workouts, due to terms of the new collective bargaining agreement. So that has created a more intense morning session, a challenge in the Florida heat.

“It really quite frankly would be better to have two (practices) instead of burning them up,” Schiano said. “You saw we had two five-minute breaks. … That was our attempt to work through it and we’ll get better at it. We’ll get accustomed to it, and get acclimated again and that’s got to become an advantage of ours as we progress – without running ourselves down at the same time.”

The heat and exertion took its toll on quarterback Josh Freeman, who had to leave the field for a spell. “Josh was pushing himself really hard and I think he felt a little nauseous,” Schiano said. “So nothing big. I think he’ll be fine.”