San Francisco 49ers

The Lawrence Okoye experiment continues, but with a twist

Then-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, right, instructs San Francisco 49ers lineman Lawrence Okoye during camp on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, in Santa Clara, Calif.
Then-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, right, instructs San Francisco 49ers lineman Lawrence Okoye during camp on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, in Santa Clara, Calif. AP

SANTA CLARA -- After the 49ers signed Lawrence Okoye in 2013, Jim Harbaugh was asked if the team debated whether the former discus thrower should be an offensive or defensive linemen.

“No, we pretty quickly moved him to defensive lineman and let him start learning the game there," Harbaugh said. "But he does have an offensive lineman body."

Indeed, Okoye's height -- he stands 6-6 -- and his long legs and long arms (34 3/4 inches) give him the silhouette of an offensive tackle, which is what prompted the astute question (Ok, I was the one who asked it. Guilty) in the first place.

The New York Jets agree. They recently signed Okoye to their practice squad, and unlike the 49ers and Cardinals before them, they are using the big Brit as an offensive tackle, not a defensive linemen. In fact, in terms of a body type, Okoye is a more muscular version of Jets starting offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

"I think it's great for my game to have as many skills as possible," he told New York area reporters after his first practice.

Okoye had never even donned a football helmet when the 49ers added him as an undrafted rookie following the 2013 draft. He was piece of clay, albeit a big and powerful one.

They figured they could mold him into a defensive linemen for several reasons. For one the position would allow him to utilize his two biggest assets -- power and athleticism -- more so than any other spot. Okoye had been an Olympic discus thrower and he immediately became the 49ers' weight-room champion.

Also, the team's defensive line coach at the time, Jim Tomsula, had a history, by way of NFL Europe, of working with neophyte players. Tomsula took a liking to Okoye, and more important, Okoye was drawn to Tomsula. Okoye was the coach's special project. Tomsula, meanwhile, was a father figure for a 21-year-old coming to a new country and learning a new sport.

The experiment never worked out. Okoye's strength flashed from time to time in practices and preseason games. He crushed and pancaked right tackle Jonathan Martin during an early practice in the 2014 training camp, drawing ooohs and ahhs from his fellow defensive players.

But he never developed anything beyond a bull-rush move and, most important, never showed any instincts as a defensive lineman. Okoye never knew where the ball was on a given play.

Which isn't to say he isn't smart. In fact, it's quite the opposite. He was an extremely good student, which initially gave the 49ers hope that he could quickly pick up the game. But he was more analytic than intuitive. And that, along with his height, long legs and long arms might make him a better offensive tackle than defensive end.

The 49ers may have always had an inkling this was the case. During the 2014 season, when there were some injuries along the offensive line, Okoye -- he was on the practice squad at the time -- practiced with the offensive linemen instead of the defensive linemen. But that experiment was short lived.

He was back at defensive end later that year and went through the most recent offseason on the defensive side of the ball. He was among San Francisco’s first wave of cuts prior to the regular season.

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The Titans signed a wide receiver, Andrew Turzilli, off of the 49ers' practice squad while the Rams did the same with center Brian Folkerts.

Turzilli (6-5, 195 pounds) originally signed with Tennessee as an undrafted rookie from Rutgers. He was placed on injured reserve before the regular season and picked up by the 49ers last month. Folkerts has been with the Saints, Panthers and AFL SaberCats since 2012.

The 49ers now have two open spots on their 10-man practice squad.

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Finally, your head probably is teeming with questions about the 49ers. Well, I have answers. And theories. And guesses and conjecture. Please join me for an hour-long chat beginning at 11 a.m. Click here for details.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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