SANTA CLARA – The conversion of athletically gifted Lawrence Okoye from a rugby player and Olympic discus finalist from Great Britain into an NFL defensive lineman is suddenly not such a far-fetched idea.
Okoye looks more like a football player every day. And on Sunday, he might have enjoyed his best day of practice as a member of the 49ers.
“I definitely feel like I’m good enough to play,” Okoye said on Monday. “I haven’t been (good enough) in previous years. I feel like I am now. That’s not me being arrogant. That’s just looking at the facts. I think I’m capable of lining up and playing ball.”
Okoye faces stiff competition to earn a roster spot on the 49ers’ defensive line. But two seasons of working on the knowledge of the game, as well as the techniques required to play the position, could place him in a spot to see his first action in the regular season.
Okoye said Jim Tomsula has lived up to his promise of developing into a player capable of being in the NFL. Okoye (6 foot 6, 304 pounds) showed the kind of athleticism that inspired the 49ers to invest a couple of seasons -- at least -- in seeing if they could turn him into a professional football player.
“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 to be is here,” Okoye said.
“Being here has gotten me to the point I can say I can play in the NFL. Whether it’s here or not is something I’m not worried about. I just worry about playing every day, improving my technique, improving my skillset and whatever happens, happens.”
Okoye said he is looking to improve his game constantly, and he pointed to teammate Aldon Smith as someone from which he can learn.
“He can do anything he wants out there,” Okoye said. “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.”
---Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst has no idea how the 49ers will ultimately attempt to replace running back Frank Gore, who was the main man in the team’s backfield for nearly all of his 10-year run with the franchise.
“That’s what we need camp to find out,” Chryst said.
Carlos Hyde will get an opportunity to be the featured back, but Chryst said he does not want tightly defined roles. He wants Hyde, Reggie Bush, Kendall Hunter and Mike Davis to be able to thrive in different roles.
“We feel there’s real nice depth there,” he said. “Now we got to work on rounding out anybody’s game. “
---Second-year player Bruce Ellington is still learning the craft of returning punts. As a rookie, he was placed on that role despite limited experience as a return man in college.
On Sunday, Ellington had an opportunity talk shop with new teammate Reggie Bush. The nine-year veteran has not handled kicks since 2011, but he has four career touchdowns on punt returns.
“Actually, I got a chance to talk to him yesterday when were catching punts,” Ellington said. “. I was like. . . ‘What do you look for and things you do when you catch the ball?’ He gave me some great advice. I’m going to use it, and hopefully I can be successful.”
Ellington averaged a respectable 8.2 yards on 23 punt returns as a rookie. He called for fair catches 12 times. Bush has 98 career punt returns with just 16 fair catches.
---After the first practice of camp, Tomsula unveiled his nickname for wide receiver DeAndrew White, an undrafted rookie from Alabama. Tomsula referred to White, simply, as “Alabama.”
Defensive lineman Quinton Dial is a third-year player from Alabama, but he said Tomsula had a different nickname for him.
“He called me Alabama A--hole,” Dial revealed.
“You’ll have to ask him,” Dial said.