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October 23, 2013
"Football nerd" Lawrence Okoye learning at a rapid pace


WATFORD, England - Lawrence Okoye can tell you Justin Smith's weight, where Ray McDonald went to high school, when Glenn Dorsey will celebrate his birthday.

That sort of knowledge has earned him ribbing among teammates - "Sometimes some of the guys in the D-line room take the p--- out of me," Okoye said - but it's an indication of how deeply the Englishman, who went through his first-ever American football practice in May, has immersed himself in the sport.

"He's a football nerd right now," defensive line coach Jim Tomsula said of Okoye, who is constantly on a laptop computer. "It's all football. He talks it. He eats it. He sleeps it," Tomsula said. " ... The guys get on him because he can tell you where everybody's from. He can tell you what school they went to, what high school they went to, how tall they were in the ninth grade, how tall they are now."

Okoye injured his knee in the 49ers' third preseason game, and the team placed him on injured reserve - effectively ending his season - shortly after. He can't practice, but he's permitted to rehabilitate alongside teammates, to attend meetings and, mostly, to study the game. "I watch several hours of film a week and I understand what's going on," he said. "I'm learning certain things, and things that didn't click before, click now."

His knowledge of even the most minute details extends beyond the 49ers roster. Before the draft, Okoye often expressed admiration for Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, the NFL's reining defensive MVP, who is similar in dimensions to the 6-6 Okoye. Asked if he's noticed other tall defensive players - perhaps Arizona's Cardinals Calais Campbell - in the six months since the draft, Okoye had a precise answer.

"He's slightly taller - he's 6-8," he said. "He's got the Margus Hunt type of size." Indeed, both Campbell and Cincinnati's Hunt are listed as 6-8.

More important, Okoye said he has a better understanding of how defensive linemen play and what makes the good ones effective. Perhaps the best at his job, he said, is Smith, who had far fewer sacks than Watt last year - three vs. 20 ½ - but whom teammates elected as one of their captains for 2013.

"I can see the game better (now), I can see all the good stuff he can do," Okoye said of Smith. "He's not just a pass rusher He affects the game in as many, if not more, ways than J.J. Watt does."

The 49ers decided to give Okoye a chance as an undrafted free agent not only because of his size and athleticism but also because he's proven he can master a sport quickly. He took up the shotput when he was 18, and at age 20 he represented Great Britain in the Olympics.

Okoye said training camp was "the hardest thing I could have gone through" and that playing against left tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati this summer "was a nice rude awakening." He said he can't wait to show those guys how much he's learned - something that may not occur until the next training camp in late July.

Until then, however, Okoye is proving his worth in other ways.The South London native has been especially popular this week with teammates who are eager to see the city.

"They think I'm the ... Yellow Pages," he said with a smile. "I just point them in the right direction."

- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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