SANTA CLARA Lawrence Okoye, the 49ers' neophyte defensive lineman, isn't in the coach's doghouse. But he has been spending quite a bit of time in the coop.
The coop, for those unfamiliar with an NFL training camp, is a practice-field contraption designed to teach defensive players how to stay low and gain leverage against their offensive counterparts.
It's essentially a 4-foot-tall awning. And when you're 6-5 like Okoye, it can be awkward and grueling to remain in a football crouch beneath it.
"They keep me in there all the time," Okoye said Sunday. "The guys watch me (and are) laughing they watch me struggle. They all realize what I'm doing and are watching my development."
The exercise is a basic building block for a player who, before May, had not donned a football helmet, much less participated in an NFL practice.
Okoye, 21, gained fame overseas as a rugby player and discus thrower in his native Britain. When the 305 pounder about 22 stone where he's from decided to give the NFL a try, the 49ers signed him as a rookie free agent.
Okoye took another lesson in his football education Saturday when he suited up for his first fully padded, full-contact practice. Playing mostly right defensive end with the third-string unit, he had trouble keeping track of the ballcarrier and was uprooted by guards Mike Iupati and backup Wayne Tribue.
But he wasn't terrible, and that in itself is a positive sign. In fact, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Okoye seemed more comfortable in pads than he had in non-contact sessions.
"His arm length really shows up in the pads," Harbaugh said. "Just being able to put his hands on somebody and really lock them out you notice him."
Harbaugh said he sought out Okoye before the session because he wanted to see how the rookie was handling the pressure of his first-ever contact practice and to make sure that he put on his pads correctly.
"I remember my first padded practice Pee Wee football, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1973," Harbaugh said. "So excited to put the gear on and slept with it all around my bed that night. I did put the thigh pads in wrong. The top part of the thigh pads was sticking down, and the narrow part was sticking up."
Okoye not only had all of the pads in the right places, he emerged from the session encouraged. He credited defensive-line coach Jim Tomsula, who has an extensive background coaching European players, and his teammates for preparing him well.
"When I'm feeling down or not so confident, there are guys like Justin Smith in my ear," Okoye said. "And someone not in my group, another guy, Vernon Davis, coming over to say, 'Come on, you can keep going.' That means the world to me. I see myself carrying through and working hard every day."
Nose tackle Ian Williams, who is a shade over 6 feet tall, said Okoye's height and long legs may be a disadvantage early on, and that he will have to guard against offensive linemen rooting him off the line of scrimmage.
But if he spends enough time in the coop, the rookie will improve.
"He has everything," Williams said. "He has the athletic ability. He has the size and the mental capacity to be able to take on the load that we put on him. It just takes time. But he's getting there. He's grown exponentially since he's been here."