The former British Olympian, who came to the team before the start of 2013, had one of his best practices to date Sunday, consistently getting into the backfield and disrupting San Francisco’s reserve offense during the evening practice.
When Okoye, 23, first arrived two years ago, his then-position coach Jim Tomsula didn’t have the highest of expectations.
After all, Okoye had never played football before.
"Our first goal was to get him to so he looks like a really bad football player," said Tomsula, who is now Okoye’s head coach. "I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s a compliment. The key term there is ‘football player.’"
Now? Okoye says he belongs.
"I definitely feel like I’m good enough to play. I haven’t been in previous years, but I definitely feel like I am now," Okoye said Monday. "That’s not me being arrogant or anything, that’s just looking at the facts."
Okoye, the British record holder in discus with a 68.24-meter throw, was the fourth-ranked discus thrower in the world during his qualification for the 2012 Olympics in London, registering a throw of more than 65 meters. He finished 12th the Olympics, throwing 61 meters in the finals.
The learning curve for football was so steep for Okoye at his start, he played in just 18 snaps during his first preseason, before a knee ailment landed him on injured reserve, allowing the 49ers to keep his rights for the season without subjecting him to the waiver wire.
Part of San Francisco's appeal for Okoye was Tomsula's history of developing players during his nine-year coaching career with the defunct NFL Europe. And since joining the 49ers staff, Tomsula developed a number of undrafted players into key contributors, including Ian Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddie.
"I remember the first thing Jimmy (Tomsula) told me was that, 'If you want to play in the NFL and want to play defensive lineman, the best place to be is here. Regardless of scheme or anything like that. If you want to play in the NFL, you should be here,'" Okoye said.
"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 anything I can worry about. I just worry about playing every day, improving my technique, improving my skill set, and whatever happens, happens."
Okoye spent that first season on injured reserve digesting as much game and practice tape as he could, trying to learn from the likes of former All-Pro Justin Smith and the rest of the 49ers’ talented group under Tomsula. He spent 2014 on San Francisco’s practice squad, which is where he began to start feeling like an NFL player, instead of a novice trying to play the game.
"My second year, I was able to grow because I was on the field all year," Okoye said. "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 put some skills on top of that. So I can anticipate things and make plays quicker, and obviously help the team in that way."
Okoye has practice squad eligibility this year, potentially giving the 49ers another year to allow him to develop. But if his strong play early in training camp translates to the preseason, San Francisco might have a hard time getting him through waivers.
After all, Okoye’s physical attributes are off the charts. He ran a 4.78 in the 40-yard dash at a regional combine before signing with the 49ers, a number unheard of for players standing 6-foot-6 and 304 pounds. In the past, Okoye has practiced with kick coverage units, flying down field with defensive backs and receivers.
Okoye might also be the most academically accomplished player on the roster, having been accepted to the University Oxford and choosing to study law. His placement in the university has been deferred until 2017.
Defensive line might be the 49ers' strongest position group, making Okoye a long shot to break camp on the 53-man roster. Even with Smith retiring and Ray McDonald’s December release, San Francisco has talent and depth at both ends and nose tackle.
Okoye has worked primarily with the third-team defense, sparingly getting reps behind Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine, Jerod-Eddie, Glenn Dorsey and Williams. Darnell Dockett, a free-agent acquisition this spring, has yet to participate in team drills during the final stages of his recovery from an ACL tear sustained last preseason. Last year, the 49ers broke camp with eight defensive linemen on the roster.
"It’s a room where everyone’s learning and everyone’s getting better," Okoye said. "I think everyone’s improved from last year. And obviously, myself included. And I think we’ve got a great room, and we’ve got an opportunity to show the rest of the league what we can do as a team."