The San Francisco 49ers, as an organization, are no strangers to taking a chance on signing a track and field athlete. Back in 1982, the 49ers signed 110-meter hurdle runner Renaldo Nehemiah. Nehemiah would go on to play three seasons and be a member of the team that won Super Bowl XIX.
Thirsty years later, the 49ers are once again bringing in a track and field star to come play in the NFL with Lawrence Okoye the one making the transition. Okoye represented Great Britain at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in the discuss throw. Now, Okoye will be making the leap into a sport that although he possesses the physical tools to play as a defensive lineman, he will be learning on the fly what many have been learning for most of their football careers dating back to pee-wee football.
While Okoye never played football up until he decided to this point, he has played rugby in the past. Okoye was a member of both the London Irish and London Wasps youth academy teams and his previous experience playing rugby gives him a starting point in being able to understand how to play with leverage against as a defensive lineman.
In organized team activities (OTAs), Okoye has spent his time learning about how to play defensive line. Teaching him to play the position is a coach who is not as well known as other coaches on the 49ers staff but just as respected in Jim Tomsula. Tomsula has been working on teaching Okoye how to play against contact, how to play against double teams, and learning about defensive schemes.
Heading into training camp and preseason, the expectation will be that Okoye will get significant time on the practice field and during the games to show how much he has learned and progressed in his short time as a football player. The advantage that Okoye and the 49ers have is that he has time to be able to learn how to play.
With Justin Smith signing a two-year contract extension and the signing of a player like Glenn Dorsey as a free agent acquisition, the need to have Okoye active or on the active roster is not a necessity but a luxury at this time.
While it is somewhat conceivable that if he amazes during preseason, Okoye could find himself contributing as a special teams player, Okoye will more than likely spend the 2013 season as a member of the practice squad and whether he turns out to be a worthwhile pickup can only be evaluated in three or four years.