NFL: Former Catawba assistant Tomsula has keen eye for talent

  • Posted: Saturday, May 18, 2013 11:05 p.m.

By Matthew Barrows

Scripps Howard News Service

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jim Tomsula has searched for NFL prospects in Belarus. He’s held clinics on American football in Zurich, Paris and Rome. He’s helped run kicking camps in Cancun.

Which is why British former Olympian Lawrence Okoye, who hadn’t played a snap of football until last week, figured San Francisco was the ideal spot for launching an NFL career.

“His background coaching guys in NFL Europe (who had) minimal experience in the game was a big contributing factor to my decision,” Okoye said of Tomsula, the 49ers’ defensive-line coach and a former Catawba College player and assistant. “It made me realize that if these other guys can do it, there’s no reason why I can’t do it.”

Tomsula coached in NFL Europe from 1998 to 2006, and spent his offseasons as a quasi football missionary. He taught the sport to young men who had never buckled on a football helmet while globetrotting in search of athletes who could be converted into American football players.

Sometimes the prospects came to him.

Ten years ago, Tomsula coached a clinic in Germany at which one of the standouts was a 13-year-old boy named Bjoern Werner. Last month, the Indianpolis Colts drafted Werner, who played defensive end at Florida State, 24th overall.

Rugby players, obviously, had skills suited for football. Track and field athletes were good targets, too. British track star Dwain Chambers, for example, had a short stint at wideout with the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe before the league folded in 2007.

Other leads were vaguer and required more detective work.

One summer, Tomsula headed to a town in Belarus because the league received a tip there was a promising athlete there.

“We had no idea what the guy looked like,” he said. “The only thing we knew was that he had a tattoo on the inside of his lower lip.”

Tomsula said the experience taught him how to evaluate athletes with no football experience.

He said he remembered scouting a big rugby player from Southampton, England, named Tom Tovo. The first thing Tomsula noticed was that Tovo turned his head when he tackled. Observing from the sideline, Tomsula turned to the man next to him and said Tovo was afraid of contact.

No, he was told. That’s how rugby players are told to tackle.

“So I got taught how to look at these guys,” he said. “You have to know their background, their culture.”

Tomsula wants to tamp down the expectations on Okoye, a former rugby player and discus thrower whom the 49ers signed after the draft. On Friday morning, Tomsula moved aside some of the desks in a meeting room and showed Okoye how he should line up when the team took the field later that day.

It was the first time the 21-year-old had been taught a proper football stance.

Still, Tomsula admits none of the prospects he discovered or coached overseas were quite like the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Okoye.

Two other defensive linemen, second-round pick Tank Carradine and fifth-round pick Quinton Dial, sat out the 49ers’ rookie minicamp. As a result, Okoye received most of the snaps at right defensive end, and by the end of Friday’s practice, he was huffing and puffing like, well, someone who had never gone through a football practice.

“I wouldn’t say I’m overwhelmed,” Okoye said. “The coaches have been great with me. They’re not trying to force-feed me. They’re just giving me little snippets that I need for today, for tomorrow and etc., so I’m just going to take it each day as it comes.”

But he still had enough to finish with a flourish.

The 49ers ended Friday’s session with the rare “box-jump drill,” in which the players first leaped, from a standing position, onto a 21/2-foot-tall box, and in the same motion sprang again -- rear end first -- onto a large mat.

It was like watching a line of 300-pound men do a series of cannonballs into a pool. The star of the drill was Okoye, who soared to seemingly impossible heights for a man his size before crashing onto the mat and returning to the back of the line to get ready to do it again.

As Tomsula recalled the drill, a smile spread across his face.

“Did you see how high he got?” he said. “That’s what I’m talking about.

“He’s got all the right stuff.”

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