SANTA CLARA Lawrence Okoye classifies himself as a "really bad football player," and he couldn't be more content.
The 49ers rookie defensive end, after all, couldn't even have achieved that designation when he first arrived in Santa Clara in May. A former rugby player and discus thrower, Okoye never had even worn a football helmet, and he had to learn basics that most NFL players pick up at the Pee Wee level.
But playing against Pro Bowl-caliber players like guard Mike Iupati and tackle Joe Staley has given him a crash course in the sport. And Okoye, 21, believes he's reached a stage at which he can at least pass as a football player.
"The guy has never played football in his life, and he has been making strides out there," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Tuesday. "He's gotten better from Day One to whatever day this is 10 or 11. He's gotten better, but it's all relative."
Fangio said Okoye's snap count in Thursday's exhibition opener against Denver will depend on the number of plays that the 49ers' defense is on the field, something that can range wildly in the preseason. One indication that Okoye will get some snaps: Starter Justin Smith will sit out the game with a finger injury. Demarcus Dobbs will start at right defensive end, the position at which Okoye lines up with the third-team defense.
The 49ers were drawn to Okoye, who signed a free-agent deal after the draft, not only because of his 6-foot-5, 305-pound frame, but because he already has proven to be a quick learner. Okoye took up the discus at age 18. By age 20 he was representing Great Britain in the Olympics.
Was he also a bad discus thrower when he began that sport?
"I was terrible. I was awful," Okoye said. "I wouldn't even call myself a discus thrower. I was a I don't know. I was really bad."
For starters Fangio said that the preseason rotation at free safety would mimic that of training camp. Craig Dahl got the first repetitions with the first-string defense when camp began, and he will start Thursday.
C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson and rookie Eric Reid also have been worked in with the first-team group. Tramaine Brock will be the No. 3 cornerback while Michael Wilhoite is likely to start at inside linebacker for Patrick Willis (hand).
About Schmidt Former UC Davis punter Colton Schmidt, whom the 49ers waived Friday to make room for receivers Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins, re-joined the team Tuesday.
To make room, the 49ers cut receiver Charly Martin. Four wideouts returned to practice after Collie and Hawkins were added, and they suddenly have a glut at the position.
Injuries The 49ers had their first non-padded practice since the start of training camp on Tuesday. Iupati sat out the session and Adam Snyder filled in at left guard. Iupati hurt his knee last week but it is not believed to be serious.