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Okeafor in at left defensive end

Chike Okeafor will begin the season as the 49ers' starting left defensive end, but that's not news to him. He says that's something he could have told everybody months ago. "I've been winning that job since the start of this year," Okeafor told <EM>SF</EM> <EM>Illustrated</EM> on Wednesday morning.

And so he has. Bigger, stronger, faster and more determined after a broken right fibula ended his 2001 season just as it was beginning to flourish, Okeafor finally had moved past incumbent John Engelberger at the position in the eyes of many with his steadily strong play since spring minicamps.

But now there's little question the job is his, at least for San Francisco's Sept. 5 season opener against the New York Giants. Engelberger became severely ill after practice last Saturday and had his appendix removed late that evening. He's out 10 to 14 days.

Okeafor scoffs at the suggestion Engelberger's ailment in any way secured his starting role. "My mindset has been the same since I got that job," he said. "I've always been of that caliber."

Apparently, Okeafor considers that he won the job during a strong late-season push before he was injured last year. With Engelberger on the mend with a heel injury, Okeafor received his second NFL start Dec. 16 and responded with a career-high 2.5 sacks. He started strong the next week against Philadelphia before he was injured midway through that game.

That ended Okeafor's 2002 season, but not his intention to hold on to the starting job - Engelberger returned to start San Francisco's final two regular-season games - and make an impact on a San Francisco pass rush that was mediocre last season.

"It's evolution," he said. "You continue getting better and better. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing - just play. As long as I have opportunities to play, I'm going to make plays. All I have to do is stay healthy and the rest will take care of itself. I plan on getting after many quarterbacks this season. The best is definitely to come."

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