SANTA CLARA (AP) — Lawrence Okoye was one of the last players to leave the “pitch” Friday afternoon — one of several things that set the big Brit apart from other newcomers at the San Francisco 49ers’ rookie minicamp.
Okoye is the only rookie there who never has played a snap of organized football. He’s the only one who has competed in the Olympics as a discus thrower.
And he’s the only one speaking with a British accent — twice referring to the practice field as a pitch, a term he knows from the rugby fields of his youth in England.
As he grew to 6-foot-6, 304 pounds, Okoye moved from rugby to track and field at age 18 and two years later set a British record with a discus throw of 68.24 meters.
Now he’s trying to make it in the NFL with the 49ers as a gridiron novice, an undrafted rookie who stands out among his peers this week on size and reputation — not to mention potential.
Okoye made an impression during his first official day as a football player, appearing strong and agile as he worked with his more experienced rookie counterparts.
He also displayed a desire to learn. Long after all other defensive players had left the field, Okoye remained with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, a man Okoye considers pivotal to his football development.
“This is the first step of many, and I’m just looking forward to the whole process,” Okoye said. “I believe in this organization I have the best chance of fulfilling my potential. They see my ambition and they see me as someone that didn’t come here just for fun, but who will really contribute to the team when I can. And the best way I can do that in the moment is to work hard every day with coach Tomsula to get to the next level.”
Tomsula previously coached in NFL Europe, where he worked with prospects similar to Okoye who had minimal experience playing football at the professional level.
Okoye developed a bond with Tomsula in the months leading up to the NFL draft. Okoye twice dined with the assistant coach and said Tomsula’s NFL Europe background was a big factor in Okoye signing with San Francisco as a free agent when he went undrafted in April.
The 49ers obviously had their reasons for grabbing Okoye, who impressed scouts at regional combines in March and April. During those events, he displayed a 35-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-5 broad jump and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds.
His background as an Olympian didn’t hurt, either. Okoye qualified for the discus finals at the 2012 London Olympic Games, a year after he won a gold medal in the event at the 2011 European Championships at age 19.
“He took up being a discus thrower at 18 and two years later he’s throwing in the Olympics,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “So that bodes well. That was a shift in what he did and he picked that up and did very nicely at it. It’s a challenge for him and a challenge for us as coaches. I’m excited about it and I know our coaches are.”
Okoye’s size and physical skills seem to make him a natural fit for the defensive line, and that is where he will get his introduction to the game, possibly along with special teams.
Defensive tackle Tank Carradine, San Francisco’s second-round draft pick this year, said Okoye works hard and is picking up and understanding things at the same rate as other rookies. And first-round pick Eric Reid said Okoye definitely passes the eye test.
“He’s huge,” Reid said. “If he can learn the game, I think he’ll be pretty good.”
The learning has just begun, and Harbaugh said, “we’ve all got a long road ahead of us and we’ve got to be patient along the way.”
That probably applies to Okoye as much as any other newcomer.
“I wouldn’t say I’m overwhelmed,” Okoye said. “The coaches have been great with me. They’re not trying to force-feed me. They’re just giving me little snippets that I need for today, for tomorrow and etc., so I’m just going to take it each day as it comes.”
NOTES: The 49ers announced they have signed five of their draft picks to four-year contracts, including lineman Quinton Dial and linebacker Nick Moody, quarterback B.J. Daniels, offensive tackle Carter Bykowski and cornerback Marcus Cooper. Moody was a sixth-round selection and Daniels, Bykowski and Cooper each were drafted in the seventh round. . The 49ers are giving a minicamp tryout to quarterback Nate Montana, son of Hall of Famer Joe Montana. While saying “it’s a great opportunity and I’m blessed to have it,” Nate Montana also said he received some pre-minicamp advice from his dad. “He said just go out there, be yourself and sling it,” Nate Montana said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not him, and I’m not going to be him, but I’d like to get to that spot.”