ARLINGTON – Charles Omenihu delivered a classic power move Saturday night, ripping his arm past Dallas Cowboys tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to gain leverage.
Once the Texans’ third-year defensive end established his position, Sprinkle couldn’t slow him down as the former Big 12 Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year sacked Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush.
In his first preseason action this year after being sidelined against the Green Bay Packers a week ago due to a hip injury, Omenihu recorded two sacks and a fumble recovery during the first half at AT&T Stadium.
The Rowlett native and former fifth-round draft pick from the University of Texas, playing in front of several friends, then sacked Rush for a second time on a stunt as he looped inside and left Cowboys offensive tackle Terence Steele trailing behind him.
Inside the locker room after the game, Omenihu was surprised to learn he had received the game ball from Texans coach David Culley, general manager Nick Caserio and executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby for his breakout performance.
"I was like, 'That's lit,'" Omenihu said. "I appreciate the organization for giving me that. I think that's a birthday present. I've never had that. That was a good experience. I love it."
Omenihu is competing for a starting job at left defensive end and delivered a convincing performance that dovetailed with the Texans’ aggressive defense engineered by defensive coordinator Lovie Smith forcing four turnovers against the Cowboys.
One week removed from the defense forcing three turnovers against Green Bay, Omenihu recovered a fumble forced by defensive end Jacob Martin on a sack and strip of Cowboys quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the first quarter. That led to running back Mark Ingram’s 2-yard touchdown run to boost the Texans to a 7-0 lead.
Between Omenihu, Martin, Maliek Collins, Whitney Mercilus, Shaq Lawson and Jordan Jenkins, the Texans should have a productive group of pass rushers.
"It's crazy, honestly," Omenihu said. "You got four guys who can get after it. Jacob got speed. Maliek (Collins) got speed. He's got quick feet. You got me, I got length and quickness. And then you've got Whit who knows how to rush and still got it off the edge.
"So, it's four guys that it's like: 'Who's going to get there first, how we going to do it?' We work as a collective group. It's not just four individuals. It's four guys working as a cohesive unit to get to the quarterback. The main goal is strip sacks."
During the second half, safety Lonnie Johnson Jr. intercepted Cowboys quarterback Ben DiNucci and raced 53 yards for a touchdown. The Texans have seven turnovers through two preseason games.
This game served notice that Omenihu is going to play extensively in his third NFL season.
Omenihu recorded four sacks last season while playing just 49 percent of the overall defensive snaps last season and had a career-high 16 quarterback hits. He's been working hard to polish his craft and improve the finer nuances of his game.
"The more and more you're out there and feeling out the guy you're going against, it's like, 'Okay, I'm giving him this, he can expect this,'" Omenihu said. "This is like my fastball and my secondary pitch is probably just as fast as the first one. You just don't know it. It's a mental game out there for me. Just being out there, pass rushing more from the outside, inside, from all over, I get an idea of what I'm good at and what I can attack other guys with."
Omenihu has seven career sacks during his first two NFL seasons. He had a career-high 16 quarterback hits, one fewer than former Texans defensive end J.J. Watt last season before the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was cut at his request this offseason. Only five players have more sacks in franchise history in their first two NFL seasons than Omenihu.
After each of his sacks, Omenihu waved his arms toward the sky. It was a tribute to fallen friends.
"Just thanking God, and then it's also I got a lot of friends who didn't see (24 birthdays)," Omenihu said. "So, just kind of always telling them I appreciate you looking down on me kind of deal. That's really what's behind it."
At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, Omenihu is a long-armed, mobile pass rusher whose run-stopping skills are improving.
Although Omenihu played just 547 snaps last season, he was one of the most productive defensive linemen in the NFL based on percentage of playing time.
“Personally, I think I grew,” Omenihu said. “From the Green Bay game on, I had a little fun. From the Detroit game on Thanksgiving, I think I showed this is what a complete player looks like. As I earn more opportunities, as I did at the end of the year, the numbers will be even better.
“I saw the benefits from J.J. from the Detroit game to the end of the year as a complete defensive lineman. That helped me excel. That’s going to help me going into my third season and taking on probably a bigger role and maybe being that guy on the defensive line.”
After being shut out in the season opener last season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Omenihu recorded at least one quarterback hit in 14 of the final 15 games. He had a season-high three quarterback hits along with four tackles and one for a loss against the Tennessee Titans in the last game of the season.
Over the final three games of the season, Omenihu played 71 percent, 80 percent and 82 percent of the snaps and combined for two sacks, eight tackles, two for losses, and five quarterback hits.
Playing for new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, the defense looks much more aggressive than it did a year ago under defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver as the Texans finished 30th in total defense.
"Yeah, absolutely, we got guys who have bought into what Lovie's preaching," Omenihu said. "We've got guys who are flying around and guys who have bought into the technique they want us to play, how they want us to play and as coaches that's all they can ask for is having guys bought in and 11 guys who are going to buy into the system and run to the ball. If you get a chance to get to the quarterback, you punch the ball out whatever the case might be."
To continue his arc of improvement, Omenihu trained with former Texans and Denver Broncos strength and conditioning coach and performance therapy specialist Billy Voltaire of Volt Performance and Physical Therapy at Kinitro Fitness as well as working out in Austin with Jeremy Hills.
Omenihu worked out with retired Dallas Cowboys and Broncos All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware last year to hone his skills.
“From the minute Charles walked through the door, he had this energy and buzz about him and he always wanted to compete and be one of the best,” Voltaire said. “That has played a big part in his offseason training and working with a future Hall of Famer in DeMarcus Ware to try to perfect his craft. Charles is down to earth, a cool guy where the work always comes first. There are very few people you can put into that category.
“He’s definitely on his way. As long as he remains humble, grounded and continues to work hard and stays with that laser-sharp focus, the sky’s the limit for Charles.”
Among the points of emphasis for Omenihu this offseason: increasing his flexibility to be able to bend and contort his body as a pass rusher to squeeze through gaps to pressure the quarterback.
For now, Omenihu is focused on improvement and trying to do his part to replace the void created by Watt’s departure.
“Obviously, we haven’t come close to comparing me to J.J., the defensive MVP who has done some amazing things,” Omenihu said. “It’s just me trying to help in any way that I can and not single myself out or try to single-handedly do anything. That’s not how we stand as a defensive line, but we’re all going to step up our game, guys like me and Ross Blacklock. It’s the next-man-up mentality that J.J. taught us and we’re all going to have to grow up a little bit faster.”
And the Texans' shift to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4 alignment seems to be working in Omenihu's favor.
"I think I'm versatile enough to play in any front, but being in a four-man front on first and second down going against tight ends and tackles that's a lot easier than going against tackles and guards," Omenihu said. "I mean Lovie puts us in those positions to go against tight ends. Any D-lineman in the NFL will tell you if a tight end blocks you, that's a problem. So, that's the mentality. You can't let them block you."
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.