• Travis Hawkins

What Kris Kocurek Brings to the 49ers’ Defensive Line

Image Credit: Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

“As Hard as We Can, as Fast as We Can”

“…I look forward to cranking my truck in the morning and getting to work as fast as I can,” that’s how Kris Kocurek described the feeling of going to work after taking the job as defensive line coach for the Miami Dolphins in 2018 after nine years in Detroit, one as the assistant defensive line coach and eight as the defensive line coach. For the 2019 season, Kris Kocurek will be putting a new work address into his GPS, 4949 Marie P. DeBartolo Way, Santa Clara, California.

The 40-year old Kocurek was taken in the seventh round of the 2001 draft by Seattle. The former Texas Tech defensive lineman’s professional career could be the NFL version of the movie Rudy. Kocurek appeared in only one game in his career, as a member of the Tennessee Titans: four plays in a successful goal-line stand. When injuries ended his playing career, the Texas native returned to his home state to begin his coaching career, first as a student assistant at Texas Tech and then as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M-Kingsville, and then coaching the defensive line at three more colleges in Texas before getting a shot in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.

What will Kris Kocurek bring to the 49ers defensive line? In NFL circles, Kocurek has a reputation for being an intense and passionate coach who gets the most out of his players and expects them to put in the work.

The passion and intensity that Kocurek brings to coaching his lineman can be seen and heard. Google “Kris Kocurek” and you will no doubt find images of a large man, with his hat on backwards bent at the waist, hands on his knees shouting instructions and encouragement to his players at full volume as evidenced by the veins bulging in his neck. Former Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke cautioned not to stand too close to Kocurek during practices saying “Sometimes he is right there, and I get an earful…” speaking about their one year together in Miami. Jim Washburn, Kocurek’s mentor in coaching and the father of the Wide-9 defensive alignment that he favors described Kocurek as a “Raccoon on meth” when he is on the field in an interview with Matt Barrows of The Athletic.

Most importantly for the 49ers, Kocurek brings a reputation of maximizing the ability of the players he coaches, especially in terms of producing quarterback sacks. In eight years as the defensive line coach of the Detroit Lions, Kocurek’s line produced 250 sacks, fourth-most in the NFL during that period. In three of Kocurek’s first four years as defensive line coach the lions invested first-round picks in the defensive line, guys like Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah, but he also got production out of lesser-known guys and turned others, like Cliff Avril, into prized free agents.

Kocurek has a knack getting the most out of rotational players as well. Players like Kerry Hyder, who played 17 games (2 starts) and had 8 of his 9 career sacks under Kocurek; George Johnson, who had 6 of his 8.5 career sacks under Kocurek; or Devin Taylor who had 7 sacks as a rotational player in 2015 and left the Lions following the 2016 season and was out of the league following one season with the New York Jets. Whether it’s the rotational guys or the first-round selections, players have their best years under Kocurek and never quite reach the same level of production under other coaches.

The 49ers have a lot of resources invested in the defensive line, having selected Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas in the first round in three out of the last four drafts. They also traded a 2020 second round pick to acquire Dee Ford (a first-round pick in 2014) from the Chiefs and are likely to use the second overall pick in the 2019 draft on a defensive lineman as well.

Regardless of a player’s status in the league Kocurek always expects his players to put forth maximum effort on and off the field, and he leads by example. Kocurek showed his dedication to coaching as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M Kingsville where in addition to his coaching duties he broke down film, ran study hall, taught classes and attended classes at night to earn his master’s degree. In the NFL with only coaching duties to focus on, Kocurek puts in 18-hour days during the season and he expects that his players also put in the work to maximize their abilities. On game day Kocurek likes to rotate guys in and out frequently to make sure that they are able to give maximum effort at all times, which will serve the 49ers well as the defensive line group is the deepest of all the position groups.

Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux described Kris Kocurek as having a “savage mentality, dog mentality,” adding “[h]e’s gonna come out there each and every day and give you his best and make sure you’re ready to go each and every day.” One thing is clear about Kris Kocurek, he coaches hard and expects a lot from his players but he stays positive with his players and they love him for it. Under the leadership of Kris Kocurek, I would expect several defensive linemen to have career best seasons in 2019.

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