SANTA CLARA (AP) — Lawrence Okoye speaks as if he is hoping to win a contest for the Oxford University debate team. That very well may be next on his list of things to accomplish.
The rugby player turned track and field athlete turned football player has been accepted to the prestigious English educational institution, where he intends to study law, and has a spot reserved until 2017.
Playing defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers is the latest of his engagements and he’s given himself over to sculpting his body into a precision instrument for the football field.
“Training is different in regards to weightlifting,” Okoye said. “But there is a lot of carryover. It’s about getting winded and how well you perform when you’re fatigued.”
He has impressed 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, among others.
“He’s really playing with a lot better pad level,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “He’s playing lower, and the bull rush, right now, is a real strength. He’s a strong man with long arms.”
Okoye, who holds Britain’s national record in the discus and represented the country in the 2012 London Olympics, lost last season to a knee injury. He’s ready to make huge strides this year.
“It’s great to be back in pads,” he said. “It’s been a long journey. I’ve tried to spend as much time as possible working out.”
Okoye hurt his knee during an exhibition game last August and never made it back to the field until training camp.
Okoye grew up a promising rugby player through high school before taking up the discus in 2010. He turned his attention to football after reaching the Olympics final, where he placed 12th.
“I enjoy the collision aspect of it,” Okoye said. “Rugby was a big deal for me and football was a sport I could let loose a little bit.”
The 49ers like his raw talent at a position where injuries took a toll last year. Despite his lack of experience — his first taste of football was at a regional NFL combine — Okoye understands the level of commitment it takes to play at an elite level.
“I have a long way to go,” Okoye said. “If I’m satisfied, I’m selling myself short. I’m enjoying the whole process. It’s crazy, really. I can’t watch tape from last year, I wince a lot. I feel like a different player.”
He lined up for pass rushing drills Saturday for the first time and overwhelmed Jonathan Martin, who is learning a new position. He wasn’t quite as successful against eight-year veteran Joe Staley.
“That’s why it’s good to go up against the best left side in the league,” said Okoye said. “It’s all part of the learning process. It’s going to be tough but I expect to beat people.”
The 49ers currently list 10 defensive linemen on their roster, including six with two years or less of experience. Rookie Kaleb Ramsey is on the physically unable to perform list.
Okoye and second-year pro Tank Carradine lived and worked out together for most of the offseason, developing a close relationship.
“I feel like it’s a group of hungry players,” Okoye said. “It’s a bunch of guys who are willing to do the necessary things.”