A year ago, Lawrence Okoye was a novelty on the 49ers’ practice field.
Now, he’s looking more and more like a football player.
The British rugby player who became an Olympic discus finalist will enter his second training camp with the 49ers working toward becoming an NFL defensive lineman.
During the non-contact offseason program, it’s almost impossible for a defensive lineman to show anything. But Okoye’s eye-popping physical attributes showed up nearly every day during special-teams drills when he was assigned to run down the field to cover kicks.
In recent seasons the 49ers have kept roster spots available to players, such as Blake Costanzo, Kassim Osgood and Bubba Ventrone, solely for their contributions on special teams. Could Okoye earn a role on the 49ers based on his ability to run down the field in the kicking game?
“He’s got to make it as a position player and that’s what he’s trying to get done,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said last week during the 49ers' minicamp.
It still appears unlikely Okoye can win a spot on the 53-man roster along the defensive line. His best bet might be to spend a season developing on the 49ers’ practice squad. (He was on injured reserve last season with a knee injury and not allowed to practice.)
But if the 49ers are not going to place him on the roster due to his play on special teams, they would be wise to hide him from the rest of the league during the exhibition games. After all, some other team might be so blown away by watching a 305-pound man blasting down the field faster than men who weigh 75 pounds less.
His size and peculiar athleticism are what made him attractive to the 49ers in the first place. But his height is also what complicates his transition to playing defensive line, according to Vic Fangio.
“There aren’t many 6-5-or-taller guys that are good defensive players,” said the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. “There’s some. But there’s not a lot. They’ve got to be able to bend their knees and play low, and use their height to their advantage when they can. But, they’ve got to bend their knees and get them down to 6-2 when they need to.
“So he’s going to have to play the game lower and use the natural ability that he does have. He’s an extremely strong guy. He can run. But we’ll see how he pans out.”