Part of the reason my expectations for Rugby League convert Jarryd Hayne were relatively low is the fact that ... well, football is hard, guys. It's really, really hard and seeing a transplant come in and understand the game so quickly was unexpected, regardless of natural talent and ability. Fortunately for Hayne, his exact position in his previous sport translates pretty well to the things the San Francisco 49ers want to ask of him.
The other player making a transition, Lawrence Okoye, doesn't have that luxury. Okoye was basically starting from absolutely nothing, and while a guy who starts from nothing doesn't usually have an NFL coaching staff to get him up to speed, knowing full well that he wasn't going to do anything at all last season while simultaneously seeing his fan base on Niners Nation get kind of out of control gave me my doubts.
And all of that made me kind of jaded when it came to Okoye overall. I needed to see something to actually get excited for him. Fortunately, that actually happened in the preseason opener against the Houston Texans on Saturday. He didn't blow me away, but in limited work I thought he did quite well. There were a couple plays worth looking at.
This is the first one, and it's important to note that, obviously, you want to get lower on offensive linemen (Okoye is No. 98 going up against the left guard). If he is able to get lower, he can unseat that left guard sooner and potentially stop that completion from being made. But I can't stop looking at how stupidly, ridiculously strong you have to be to toss a guard down like that while applying force to his upper body.
Okoye is locked in at the guy's shoulders (and is probably taking what's given to him, it's not at all bad form necessarily) and since he couldn't get in under and get around the guy, he decides he'll just bend him the wrong way until he falls. That's awesome, and showcases Okoye's intense strength. I can watch this all day. It's not the greatest play, it's not something that's going to break the game, but he engages, he disengages and then he hugs the quarterback.
That play was the biggest one for me, but I also thought he showed a decent ability at tracking the running back and properly disengaging from his blocker, as you can see below:
Okoye is watching the running back the whole time, and you'll notice what he first does when he sees the back cutting his way is give the guard a short push to his right, while the back is coming to his left. What the guard WANTS at the beginning of that play is to lead Okoye to the right, and by pushing him that way, Okoye is actually briefly acquiescing to the guard's momentum, before disengaging to tackle the running back. It was a very, very small motion but it may have been the difference between him getting the tackle and him missing the tackle.
This one wasn't as good as the other two plays, but it was Okoye's only other tackle on the day, so I thought I'd include it. Okoye did have some other solid plays like the first one in which he applied pressure, but I didn't have time to re-watch the full game to grab gifs of those plays. What I like in the play above is that, even though the whole line is shifting that direction, Okoye never forgets that he needs to engage, he keeps his arms out and he tries to make contact.
Contact is a scary thing, you guys. Contact hurts. There's a lot of big, scary men and as big and scary as Okoye was before he started his NFL journey, he's a lot scarier now that he's been exposed to this level of contact. Head coach Jim Tomsula talked a little bit about Okoye and how he looked when he first joined the team in a recent meeting with the media.
"You remember that first year he was here. My God, I didn't want to put him in a game," Tomsula said, "I mean the last preseason game I got him a few reps. I was worried he'd get busted up."
That's a legitimate concern, or at least it was. Now Okoye is actually showing that he understands the nuances of his position. He has a long, long way to go, but he's taking the steps he needs to take and he's taking them when he needs to take them. Here's hoping he continues to take those steps and can find a way to make this roster.