During OTA practices a year ago, Lawrence Okoye was a physical specimen. Today he looks more like a football player.
“I couldn't get anything right because I didn't know what was going on,” the one-time Olympic discus thrower said Tuesday after practice. “So at the snap you jump straight up because you're looking for the ball. Now I can stay lower for longer because, like I said, my mind's clearer.”
Staying low is perhaps the biggest challenge for Okoye, who stands 6-6 and weighs more than 300 pounds. He has long legs – only offensive linemen Alex Boone and Carter Bykowski can rival Okoye's – and that makes gaining leverage an issue.
The Croydon, England native has a few traits, however, that can give him an advantage. With apologies to Joe Staley, he's the most athletically gifted big man on the team. Last week Jim Harbaugh mooned over the way Okoye more than kept pace with speedy return man Darryl Morris during a special teams drill. Morris, a 186 -pound cornerback, once ran a 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds.
His other advantage is strength. Discus throwing is predicated on sudden bursts of power, which is similar in a lot of ways to firing off the line of scrimmage for a five-second play. Okoye did not have any catching up to do when it came to the 49ers' wight room. On the contrary, he immediately stepped in as one of the leaders when it comes to hoisting big numbers.
Okoye, 22, said that OTAs are good for honing technique but that he's looking forward to training camp when he can show off his power. “Right now it's about looking smooth and being technically sound,” he said. “When the pads come on you can show your physicality and stuff.”
Finally Okoye is very bright, studies hard and (pssst: here's the key) seems to truly want to be an NFL football player, which hasn't always been the case when it comes to athletes – whether it be wrestlers or track stars – who take up the sport.
He has plenty going against him, including his relative lack of experience and a loaded 49ers' roster when it comes to defensive ends. In addition to starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, the team has Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs at the position. Will Tukuafu has been playing fullback exclusively, but his original position was defensive end and his ability to play multiple positions is an advantage when it comes to landing a roster spot.
Okoye, meanwhile, spent 2013 on injured reserve. He and Carradine, a high second-round pick a year ago, are the only players in the list above who have not played an NFL snap. It will be interesting to see whether the leap Okoye has made from know-nothing first-year neophyte to second-year player is dramatic enough for the 49ers to keep him around for a third season.