Harbaugh on Okoye: 'Better in pads'
"Obviously, I'm still not doing a lot of things correctly. But I'm taking on guys and I'm holding my own." -- Lawrence Okoye (AP)
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SANTA CLARA -- There figure to be plenty of surprises for 49ers rookie defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye, who has never played a football game in his life.
And 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was definitely surprised with what he saw from Okoye during the team's first full-squad padded practice.
"The most noticeable thing is he appears to be a better player in pads, which wasn't going to be my first thought," Harbaugh said on Sunday. "His arm length really shows up in pads. He was wearing pads, other guys wearing pads. Now, the arm length, to be able to put his hands on somebody and lock them up, was noticeable."
When Okoye signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent, he had never worn football pads. He grew up in the United Kingdom, where he excelled at rugby. He took up the discus and immediately become the British record holder and a finalist in the Olympics.
He did not know how to put on his football pads at first when he reported in the spring. Now, he does not require assistance to figure out where everything goes.
On Saturday during his first full-squad padded practice, Okoye seemed to have a difficult time staying under the pad level of the offensive linemen in front of him. At 6 foot 6, that figures to be a constant struggle. But Okoye was able to use his arms to keep offensive linemen at bay.
"I was happy with the way I dealt with it," Okoye said. "It's very different than OTAs and football school when you haven't got the helmet on and the pads on. Obviously, I'm still not doing a lot of things correctly. But I'm taking on guys and I'm holding my own. That's as much as I can expect of myself at the moment."
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has mentioned to Okoye that part of the requirement of the sport is playing with a mean streak while maintaining composure and thinking clearly.
"It's about control," Okoye said. "Everything is control, especially when you're going against teammates. There has to be a certain amount of forcefulness, I'm enjoying that aspect of the game."
Okoye is accustomed to playing contact sports, but the helmet and pads make it quite a bit different than stepping on a rugby pitch, he said.
"The whole helmet thing makes it different, being able to lead with your face mades it very different," he said. "Rugby is physical in other ways. They're two different games. They're similar but different."
After completing the 49ers' offseason program, which included non-padded drills and a lot of classroom study, Okoye said it was the most difficult thing he has done in his life.
He said he is prepared for training camp to be even more grueling and challenging.
"This is training camp," he said. "Everybody knows things get notched up a lot. I'm really fortunate to have the group I have working with me. They're going to see me through.
"When I'm feeling down or not so confident, there are guys like Justin Smith in my ear. 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."