There aren’t many players who can say they got a chance on football’s biggest stage without ever having played the sport. That’s exactly the case for British Olympian Lawrence Okoye, who parlayed his athleticism and rare mix of speed and strength into a contract with the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
Okoye wasn’t the only person excited about the deal, either. As quoted by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh seems especially pleased with signing the projected defensive lineman.
“Inadequate -- that was my first impression standing next to him [...], an Adonis, a great physical specimen of a man. Our creator created a beautiful man,” he said.
Strange though Harbaugh’s comments may be, he has a point. Okoye is an incredible athlete with the raw physical tools to warrant a closer look.
At 6'6" and 305 pounds, Okoye has ideal size to play in San Francisco’s three-man front. His chiseled frame and 4.78 speed are eye-popping, and one has to wonder what San Francisco will be able to get out of him if Harbaugh and company can coach him up enough to see the field.
Okoye admits it will be a long road and it may take some time to earn any amount of playing time, but he’s confident in his physical abilities and propensity for learning quickly. He talks about those particular aspects in this video:
It takes more than physical ability to play in the NFL, and while Okoye seems very aware of that fact, there’s no guarantee Harbaugh and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula will be able to mold him into a professional football player.
Then again, the 21-year-old certainly seems to have the intelligence to pick up the finer points of football. He was accepted to Oxford University to study law—a feat that obviously requires a tremendous amount of intelligence (h/t Daily Mail).
Paired with the fact that the Olympian didn’t start throwing discus until he was 18, it’s easy to understand why a team would take a chance on Okoye; ability to learn and desire to succeed are essential traits for any professional athlete.
But How Will it Work?
We could spend days dissecting the ins and outs of playing defense on an NFL line. From learning play calls, stunts, twists and schemes to getting a better grasp on the general rules of the game, Okoye will certainly need some time to develop into an NFL football player.
Yet as Okoye noted in the above video, similar success stories aren’t uncommon. BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and SMU defensive end Margus Hunt each have limited football background, but their physical tools are unbelievable, and both will be working toward a starting role in the NFL courtesy of first- and second-round selections, respectively.
Okoye benefits from his size, but not for the obvious reasons. If he didn’t possess the size to play on the defensive line, we probably wouldn’t have heard anything at all about the British Olympian.
As a defensive end, Okoye won’t be asked to do too much. At its core, playing defense is still about making tackles and getting after the quarterback, and Okoye may not need much coaching to do those things. Okoye’s size will allow him to play a position at which physically gifted athletes can thrive without Peyton Manning’s football intellect.
Rookie Season Prediction
Given the talent on San Francisco’s defensive line and the 21-year-old’s nonexistent football experience, it’s hard to believe Okoye will see the field in 2013. He may find his way into a reserve role by the end of the season, but his addition certainly seems like a long-term investment in raw physical ability.
Should the 49ers suffer an inordinate amount of injuries this season, Okoye may work his way into a limited role at defensive end, but it’s more likely we won’t be seeing much of the former discus thrower until he develops a more refined set of football skills.
There really isn’t a limit to Okoye’s potential at the NFL level, though. When all is said and done, success is all about working hard and having the desire to get better. As long as he makes the effort, Okoye has the potential to be an exceptional football player.