SANTA CLARA -- It's no surprise that 49ers defensive tackle Lawrence Okoye has come a long way in the past year, given he was new to football and just trying to prove he was more than a novelty.

The former British Olympian discus thrower has progressed to the point where he's now earning the praise of coach Jim Harbaugh.

"It's just crazy, really," Okoye said Sunday. "I can't really watch last year's tape. It's just too hard to watch. I cringe too much. Now I feel like a football player. It's time to just keep progressing."

One sure sign came Saturday during a one-on-one blocking drill, when Okoye matched up against 49ers Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Joe Staley.

"He had a collision with Joe Staley and he gave Joe everything he could handle," Harbaugh said Sunday. "Joe stepped up, no question about it, but that's good to see that kind of competition."

Okoye also no doubt likes hearing that much more than he did Harbaugh's blunt assessment of Okoye's football prowess last August.

"He's not a good football player," Harbaugh said. "His next goal is to be 'not a bad player.' But he's made growth from never having played the game of football. So you talk about process, and expectations need to be realistic.

"I want him to be a bad football player because that's really the next jump up for Lawrence Okoye."

Okoye called Harbaugh's critique fair. He also feels as if he no longer falls into that category.


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"I can move past that, that's safe to say," Okoye said. "But there's a lot more to go. If I'm satisfied where I'm at now, then I'm selling myself short."

Okoye knows he has his hands full, both in terms of making the 49ers 53-man roster -- he spent last season on the injured reserve list -- and earning playing time.

To that end, he limited his time in England to three weeks the past year so that he could spend as much time working out with fellow defensive linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald and absorbing every bit of knowledge possible.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.