Springtime football in the NFL is the unwelcome cousin of its glorious fall counterpart. It looks and feels an awful lot like a gaggle of large men going through the motions.
That innate halfheartedness creates an environment in which novelty becomes glaring.
So, after six years of Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans anchoring the 49ers’ defense — both with their own distinct coaching cadence and rhythm — we have someone new keeping tabs on the group opposite Kyle Shanahan.
In these way-too-early days, what is apparent is that Steve Wilks is unique, different from his predecessors.
At 53, Wilks is the first defensive coordinator who is significantly older than Kyle Shanahan (age 43), and one who owns distinct lattices of scar tissue built up from a career of never quite being provided the opportunities he’s probably earned.
He was tossed aside by the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 for Kliff Kingsbury after a 3-13, Josh Rosen-led season, and not offered the Carolina Panthers’ head coaching job after coaching them to a 4-2 record as interim coach with Sam Darnold as his quarterback last season.
With the 49ers, he has taken over one of the most talented defenses in the league. For the first time, that defense is getting a coach experienced in the secondary.
Saleh and Ryans built up the most dynamic young linebacking corps in the league with Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and the just-departed Azeez Al-Shaair. Paired with a domineering, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead-led front, it’s been a consistently great group.
But the secondary has always had questions.
Charvarius Ward is excellent, and though Deommodore Lenoir had an impressive second season, there are still more questions than answers with him. Talanoa Hufanga was named — questionably, if not incorrectly — as a first team All-Pro, but had major coverage busts in the second half of the year. Tashaun Gipson Sr. is 32 and considered retirement this offseason. Ji’Ayir Brown is a promising rookie, but the operative word there is rookie. Isaiah Oliver looks like he could be an impressive addition in the slot.
All the pieces are there, but they lack the assured excellence provided by the rest of the defense.
Wilks’ edict and intention is to turn that back end into a force that’s no longer the 49ers’ perpetual concern.
His impact has been felt early.
In every practice open to media, he’s been much hands-on than his predecessors. On Tuesday, he watched tip drills — in which a ball gets batted up to simulate a tip and ensuing interception — for the entire defense. He offered encouragement — in the form of ye olde coach slap on the rear — to just about every player in the fast-paced drill.
There have been times in 11-on-11s when he tracks down a defensive back or two and gestures to them on something they can correct, and shows what they should be doing. He’s involved.
“I see certain things back there,” Wilks said. “I’m trying to make coaching points on the run, just to try to get those guys to self-correct themselves. Because there’s times, of course, during the game, you can’t get to them. So you just want them to be able to think about what should happen then hit the reset button and get ready for the next play.”
Lenoir, the most uncertain player in the defensive back group, has loved what he’s seen.
“I was very impressed,” Lenoir said. “He’s like the godfather of the DBs. He’s got every answer and he’s always a positive person. There was plays that I done gave up in OTAs and it was never breaking me down. It was always bringing me up and just telling me how I could be better. So I take my hat off to him.”
Among the myriad quotes from The Godfather Wilks might appreciate, the following might best represent his coaching ethos:
Great men are not born great, they grow great.
Wilks is here to mold an abundantly young group into something that bears fruit sooner than later.
He told reporters Wednesday that he believes Ward “… has the talent to be one of the best in the league” and said he’s “very confident” that Ambry Thomas — who had an impressive run down the stretch of the 2021 season before evaporating into thin air in 2022 — can “get it done,” following what he felt was an impressive minicamp and OTAs.
He stressed that his approach is based on relationships, relishing the opportunity to talk to Nick Bosa — who he said is on a Canton track, and likened to Brian Urlacher and Luke Kuechly in his preparation — this week for the first time.
Wilks won’t have to worry about Bosa, Fred Warner, or really anyone in the starting front seven, aside, perhaps, from Drake Jackson, who’s gotten rave reviews thus far.
For the 53-year-old, though, there’s a clear area that needs correcting. It’s one that stands out on most of Hufanga’s mistakes, low-lighted to ignominious perfection in the overtime win over the Raiders: explosives.
“One of our goals we talked about trying to lead the league in the least explosive plays,” Wilks said. “think we gave up too many last year. So hopefully you don’t see that. The fastest and quickest way to win a game is through the air. So as great as those guys may be playing up front, we got to make sure we secure things on the back end. So we don’t want to give up explosive plays. That’s number one. And two, we got to make more plays on the football, interceptions and then find a way to get in the end zone.”
Wilks knows what his job is.
And as great as the 49ers’ defense was last season, anyone who watched them could tell you there’s massive potential for improvement.
That, the 49ers hope, will come in the next few months.
For now, Wilks will get away before the training camp, expected to start in late July. He’ll head back to the grand land of Appalachia, with the intention of making full use of his time away.
“I’ll be back in the mountains of North Carolina, sitting on my deck, watching the mountains, probably smoking cigars,” Wilks said. “I’m not gonna tell you what else I’ll be doing,” (that last line said as he held up a water bottle, smiling.