The San Francisco 49ers have spent the last two and a half years working with Lawrence Okoye to develop him into an NFL caliber defensive tackle. He spent his first year on injured reserve, and last year on the practice squad. Okoye met with the media on Monday, and made it clear that he thinks he has finally reached the point where he can compete in the NFL.
When Okoye first joined the 49ers, the initial talk was just about making him a bad football player. He had never worn pads, and it was a significant learning curve for the Olympic athlete. In discussing his development, Okoye talked about studying film while on injured reserve, and then using practices in year two to start developing the instincts needed to play football. He now thinks he has reached a point where he can compete in this league:
I definitely feel like I'm good enough to play. I haven't been in previous years, but I feel like I am now. That's not me being arrogant or anything, that's just looking at the facts. I think I'm capable of lining up and playing ball.
He got some second team nickel work as a defensive end in a recent practice, and seems to be impressing at times. But as you can see in the transcript below, he realizes he needs more than a couple good days of practice. He is excited about the team's defensive line depth and the improvement across the board. That first preseason game will be intriguing to watch as far as where Okoye is lining up on the depth chart. The departure of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald opens the door for significant opportunities all along the line.
On having a solid day on Sunday:
Yea, every year's obviously been an improvement. But when you're around world class players, it's tough to stay on the same level. But I think I've gotten there now, and I think I've improved my fundamentals and basic technique to a level where I feel very comfortable playing. And my focus is on improving my skills, and developing even more of a breadth of skills, and learning as much as possible from other guys, and taking my play to an even higher level.
On skills he is looking to improve:
I think in the pass rush, when you rush the passer, I think you need to have a go-to. Everyone has their special strengths and weaknesses. Obviously I'm going to use my strength, but I need to have a couple things that complement that. That's the kind of thing that someone like Aldon Smith, he can do anything he wants out there. I just want to get to a level where I can pull more tools out of my toolbox when I'm trying to get to the quarterback.
On improved awareness and only being able to get it practicing and playing:
Yea, I think that's definitely true. When I was on IR that year, I used that time to get as much knowledge as I can from watching film, etc. But my second year, I was able to grow because I was on the field all year. I didn't have any, apart from my preseason injury, I was able to play all season. So, I was able to develop those instincts and basic instincts, to be honest, and basic fundamentals on the field. I think this year, I've been able to build on top of that again, put some skills on top of that. So I can anticipate things and make plays quicker, and obviously help the team in that way.
On what he expected going into first padded practice two years ago:
I wasn't expecting what I got, that's for sure. It was much tougher than I anticipated. You know, it's just one of those things, there's a certain amount of naiveté you have doing what I'm trying to do, and that was one of those eye-opening days. Obviously I've progressed a lot since then, and hopefully I'll continue to improve.
I think obviously I've got a high ceiling but we've got a lot of guys in the d-line room that does. It's a room where everyone's learning and everyone's getting better. I think everyone's improved from last year. And obviously, myself included. And I think we've just got a great room, and we've got an opportunity to show the rest of the league what we can do as a team.
On challenges Jarryd Hayne faces having never worn pads:
Yea, I've obviously never played running back. When I played rugby, I used to play on the wing. I'd get the ball in hand and run and stuff, so it was instinctive to me to run how I ran. I'd get low when I needed to, and obviously Jarryd had those same instincts. But obviously, putting pads on like you said is a different story. And it's just something that's going to develop over time. Some days you learn the hard way, some days you learn the easy way. And I think I've had to go through that in my short career. And Jarryd will do that too. But obviously people can see he's improving, and he's getting there. But as long as he's able to train hard every day, he's going to get better. That's what everyone on the team is trying to do.
On learning to protect yourself and deflect hits:
I think when you're, if you look at someone like Justin Smith. He played something like 14 years in the league, and I think he missed two games. A lot of that is because he's a tough durable guy, but a lot of it comes down to being a smart player. If you're a smart player, you understand blocking schemes, and you understand where your threats are. You're less likely to get cut going one way, less likely to get cut going the other way. You can see things happen before they do happen. So, that applies to every position. Obviously, running back is harder because you have so many guys trying to hurt you, but i think that's something that develops as you develop your football intelligence. That's something I try and keep in my mind, try and anticipate things happening before they do.
On passing along project mantle to Hayne:
No, I don't know anything about that. All I know is Jarryd's an outstanding talent. Everybody can see that's why he's here. So he's just got to keep going on his path, just like everybody else. I think he's going to be just fine. And I think obviously when you put a spotlight on someone who's young and in this game, It's probably counter-intuitive in a certain sense. You should probably just let them go on with what they're doing, and expect low expectations, high results. That's what Jimmy always preaches. He's going to do his thing, and he's going to be fine.
On if Sunday was best practice since he's been here:
I don't know. I make plays in practice, sometimes I don't sometimes I do. Sometimes I make several plays, sometimes I don't. I think obviously you guys have to watch 90 guys, so you don't see them all. But, I don't know. It's not something, yesterday was good, but you know, we've got pads coming on and I think the d-line can only get better. Things are harder now because we can't use huge amounts of our capabilities, our physicalness. We can't display it to its full potential. So I think when the pads come on, things will definitely get better. And obviously, preseason games, that's where you can really exhibit your talents. So, that's what I'm most looking forward to, and I think i'll, that's when I think I'll get the most out of what I can do.
But yea, practice went well yesterday. Things went wrong, things went right. But you just got to put them together. I think having one or two days isn't good enough because like I said, the talent is so good in that room you need to keep piling them on top of each other. Especially since I'm getting limited reps than others because I'm further down than others. So you have to make sure you take advantage of those reps.
On if he feels he is an "NFL player" and that opportunities exist elsewhere if it doesn't work out with 49ers:
I definitely feel like I'm good enough to play. I haven't been in previous years, but I feel like I am now. That's not me being arrogant or anything, that's just looking at the facts. I think I'm capable of lining up and playing ball. Like you said, there's a lot of talent here and I remember when I first got here, the first thing Jimmy told me was that, 'If you want to play in the NFL and you're a defensive lineman, the best place is here. Regardless of scheme, anything like that, if you want to play in the NFL, you should be here. So, being here has gotten me to a point where I can say I can play in the NFL. Whether it's here or not is not really anything I worry about. I just worry about playing every day, improving my technique, improving my skill set, and whatever happens, happens.
On having inkling Tomsula would be here in some form after Harbaugh left:
Yea, I don't know why they would get rid of Jimmy. You know, Jimmy's proven year after year after year that he's an outstanding coach. I think his track record speaks for itself. The amount of undrafted guys we've had go through here and had NFL careers. Someone like Ian Williams, someone like Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Ricky Jean-Francois was drafted in the seventh round. We've got so many guys that come through the system and have done well.
And that's why he's right when he says, "If you're a d-lineman and you want to play in the NFL, you should come here", because I think he's proven himself. So yea, I had no reason to think he would't be here.
On when he started playing more instinctually:
Yea, I think there's a point when that happens. I don't know when that happened. I think that's true, but like have I reached my full potential? No, I haven't. Am I crisp, am I perfect? No, I'm not. So, that's something you've got to keep going every day and those instincts will keep coming. And especially in the pass game, things will happen even quicker, and I'll get back there even quicker, the more instincts I develop.
On if he's set goals for himself this season:
Not at all. I look at things day-by-day because if there's one thing I've learned in this league in the short time I've been here, it's that things change every day. You can be here today, you can be gone tomorrow. That could happen to me very easily. So I don't set long term goals, especially in my current position. Like our special teams coach emphasizes every day, collect those small wins. Small wins every day, one rep at a time. You keep stacking those small wins together, you'll build on something.
On if Quinton Dial's nickname is well-earned:
Oh, definitely. Q is a tough, hard-working, feisty guy. I think anyone in the locker room will tell you that. He's one of the last guys you want to cross. He's earned his position. I think he was drafted in the fifth round. A lot of teams passed on him, but I think now, he's really showing people what he can do. Last year he had some tough positions, he had to step in at nose tackle. He played end all year. Came in and played really well, and I think he's definitely earned the reputation he's currently got.
But again, he's improved since last year. He's improved, Tank's improved, Kaleb, everyone's improved. I think the d-line is something 49ers, anyone associated with the 49ers should be very excited about.