In shorts, Lawrence Okoye looks like an All-Pro. The 6-foot-6, 284-pounder is a physical specimen, with huge arms, shoulders and legs who can heave a 4-pound, 7-ounce discus more than 223 feet.
The 49ers signed the British Olympian and former rugby player, 21, as an undrafted free agent this spring in hopes that he can transition into a force as an NFL defensive lineman.
The Niners knew Okoye would be a long-term project. Now Okoye knows it as well after going through organized team activities (OTAs) and the recent mandatory minicamp with veterans.
Speaking to the British magazine ShortList this week, Okoye said his training experience with the 49ers has been “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I’m under no illusions,” he told the magazine. “But other guys have made the transition before. One of my key decisions in joining the 49ers was the chance to work with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. He has a great history in NFL Europe, where he started in England with the Monarchs. He’s known for developing people without much of a background in the game, and even those who have never played the sport. I fall into that category.”
Since signing with the 49ers, Okoye has had to learn things that other rookies already have known for years. He’s doing position drills and learning techniques, trying to absorb the playbook, lifting weights and scrimmaging.
“It’s going to be tough to learn everything from the defensive playbook to the positional responsibilities of our defensive scheme from scratch,” he told ShortList. “But I look forward to it.”
To date, however, Okoye hasn’t had to experience the new game with offensive linemen trying to run him over, the way they will be when the 49ers summer training camp opens in late July.
Because of that, Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio says it’s almost impossible to know what the team has in Okoye, who probably will spend the year on the team’s practice squad – if the coaching staff sees enough aptitude in Okoye to keep him around.
“You see some potential, yes,” Fangio told reporters recently. “But still, it’s a game you have to know how to play. And it’s going to be a matter of how quickly he learns how to play. He hasn’t had anybody hit him yet. He hasn’t had a double team yet. He hasn’t figured out if it’s a run or pass, whether he sould rush or play the run.
“So, it’ll probably be a very slow process with him much more than a normal rookie.”