Lawrence Okoye is physically gifted and mentally strong as a former Olympian, yet he faces an uphill battle to earn playing time on the 49ers’ defensive line.
That unit is as deep and talented as it’s ever been, so Okoye would have to outperform players such as Tony Jerrod-Eddie, Tank Carradine and Demarcus Dobbs. And those three back up starting defensive ends Ray McDonald and Justin Smith.
But as Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted recently, Okoye could make a splash as a special teams player in 2014. Specifically, wrote Branch, as a “kickoff-coverage kamikaze.”
Okoye has terrific speed for a man his size (6-foot-6 and 304 pounds) and great strength. Plus, he seems willing to work hard to find a place on the roster in 2014.
Heading into organized team activities (OTAs) recently, the former British discus thrower posted on Twitter that he was eager to make something happen:
“Thanks to all the SF fans that have supported me – OTAs start next week – time to prove you all right! #IGotThis.”
Recently in practice, Okoye drew cheers from his teammates and coaches when he caught speedy cornerback Darryl Morris in a special teams drill, causing head coach Jim Harbaugh to laugh.
“Fun to watch, wasn’t it?” Harbaught told Branch. “A big, 300-and-however-many-pound guy running down on the kickoffs. I’d love to see it.”
And Okoye said he’d be happy to play on special teams.
“You see a lot of big guys in the league playing on special teams, on kickoff coverage, especially,” Okoye told Branch. “It’s a spot where you can (run) and go down and make some plays.”
Special teams might be his best option to contribute, in that Okoye still acknowledges that learning all the techniques and nuances of playing defensive end in a 3-4 scheme are difficult to pick up.
He told Bill Williamson of ESPN.com recently that he’s much improved from 2013 – his first year with the 49ers – but has had to come a long way since San Francisco signed him as a project because of his raw skills.
“You can be as fast and as strong as you want to be, but if you don’t know football you are going to get blown off the ball,” Okoye said.
Now, however, he says he at least feels like he knows what he’s doing in practices when he lines up on defense.
“I know the game now,” he told Williamson. “It’s a tremendous difference.”
Still, being buried on the depth chart, Okoye’s best chance to make the roster might be as a special teams player. Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the learning process and the competition on the defensive line.
“We’ve got some really talented guys and I think it’s one of the deepest positions we have,” Okoye told Branch. “It’s great for us to push each other and get better. I’m just looking forward to competing in training camp.”