Lawrence Okoye, who competed for Great Britain in the discus in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, stands out in this year's class not only for his awesome blend of athleticism and size - 6-foot-6, 304 pounds - but because he's never played a snap of American football.

49ers have their eye on British Olympic discus thrower

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 4:54 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 5:21 pm

SANTA CLARA - Throwing a 4-pound discus is nothing like taking on a 315-pound guard and a 325-pound tackle while trying to corral a 210-pound tailback. Except that very powerful, very explosive men are the best at both.

Which is what gives Lawrence Okoye confidence about his latest pursuit, and makes him perhaps the most fascinating case study in this week's NFL draft.

Okoye, who competed for Great Britain in the discus in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, stands out in this year's class not only for his awesome blend of athleticism and size - 6-foot-6, 304 pounds - but because he's never played a snap of American football.

In fact, he's never even worn a football helmet.

"I have played rugby. I played the wing," Okoye, 21, said in a recent phone interview. "Which is probably comparable to playing wideout in football. I played against a lot of small, quick guys. And they used to test my feet, defensively, when I had to make open-field tackles and stuff."

Those quick feet also caused a stir at this month's super regional combine in Dallas, where Okoye, envisioned as a defensive lineman by NFL evaluators, ran a 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds, broad-jumped nearly 10 1 / 2 feet and bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times.

"He was unbelievably active and incredibly explosive in drills," longtime NFL talent evaluator Gil Brandt wrote on NFL.com. "It was a real first-class show."

The buzz is that Okoye is well worth a late-round selection Saturday.

One of the teams eyeing him closely is the 49ers, who seem to be a good fit for three reasons: They have more picks - 13 - than any other team and could afford to gamble on Okoye; they run a 3-4 defense, for which Okoye is perhaps best suited; and their defensive-line coach, Jim Tomsula, has a long history of coaching overseas.

Tomsula spent nine seasons in NFL Europe, including working with players with minimal background in American football. In the offseasons, he conducts coaching clinics on American football in Italy.

Okoye, from Croydon, south London, always has been a quick study. When he was 18, he took up the discus. Two years later, he represented the United Kingdom in the London Games.

Discus is a sport that usually takes years to perfect, and champions typically are in their late 20s and 30s. Okoye finished 12th in the Olympics, but the gold medalist, Germany's Robert Harting, predicted Okoye would dominate the sport in coming years.

American football, however, always has been lurking in the back of Okoye's mind.

His father, Lawrence Sr., was a defensive end at Nebraska. When he was 16, the younger Okoye became increasingly interested in the NFL games that were broadcast Sundays on Sky TV.

Today he talks about players with the ease of a veteran broadcaster. He's very familiar with the 49ers' Justin Smith - "He's just so strong," Okoye said - but his favorite is Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt because of their similarities in size.

"He's long, he's explosive, very strong," Okoye said. "And if you could make a D-end, he's pretty close to what you would make. He's proven that week in and week out - batting down balls, holding gaps, making plays in the backfield and obviously sacking the quarterback."

If the 49ers are looking for a precedent, they need only look at one of the portraits on the wall at team headquarters.

In 1984, they used a fifth-round pick on nose tackle Michael Carter, a silver medalist in the shot put at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Carter went on to play nine seasons in San Francisco, was voted to three Pro Bowls and has three Super Bowl rings.

One major difference is that Carter began playing football in the seventh grade.

"With Lawrence, you can see that he's got the raw talent," Carter said. "The question I ask is, 'Will they allow him the time to learn the game? How much patience will they have?' "

Two other former track athletes will figure prominently in this draft.

Like Carter, Margus Hunt played at SMU. He was a world junior champion in the discus and shot put for Estonia before taking up football for the first time five years ago. The 6-8 defensive end, 25, hopes to be drafted at the end of the first round Thursday.

Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah likely will be selected higher than that - perhaps in the top 10. A native of Ghana, Ansah went to BYU intending to join the track team but switched to football in 2010. He also plays defensive end.

Okoye noted that Ansah, 24, wore a football helmet for the first time when he was Okoye's age, 21.

"And he's just exploded," Okoye said. "He's the epitome of raw, physical talent and how it can be translated into a football player. And he's got a lot to learn, obviously, as he goes through to the league. But he's a guy who hardly played football before and is now considered a top-10 pick. There's a lot of encouragement I can take from that story."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320. Follow him on Twitter @mattbarrows.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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