July 14, 2024
Kris Kocurek, one of the NFL's most highly regarded defensive line coaches, doesn't believe in taking any backward steps

SANTA CLARA — When the 49ers’ offseason program concludes to start summer break, coach Kyle Shanahan urges his players to stay ready during their 40 days away before training camp. Don’t get out of shape. Show up with a clear head, prepared to hit the ground running.

As for the coaches, not so much. Shanahan loves to get away and as he puts it, “do the things we don’t want the players to do.”

Try as he might, that’s a difficult sell to Kris Kocurek, the 49ers’ manic defensive line coach. He remembers sleepless nights before football games and track meets at Caldwell High in Texas, anticipating his next pass rush move or a personal best in the shot put.

Kocurek is 44 now, and some of the rough edges have softened through real life experience. Yet the anticipation for competition remains as Kocurek awaits the chance to get in the trenches with his guys.

“It’s mid-summer and we’re on a break and I can’t sleep at night thinking about the first day of training camp,” Kocurek said. “I wish I could hit a turn-off button, but that’s the way I’ve always been.”

For a training camp junkie, Kocurek is one of the best shows going. He was out there over the last month with his hat on backward, 49ers T-shirt drenched in sweat, pushing, prodding and demanding maximum effort and attention to the tiniest detail.

You can bet he’s bringing that same electricity to the 49ers’ regular-season practices now that camp has ended.

When defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans left to become head coach of the Houston Texans, there was speculation that Kocurek could move into that role. Ruffin McNeill, who was Kocurek’s position coach at Texas Tech in 2000 and a mentor, wasn’t buying it.

“He deserves to be paid like a coordinator and I’m sure the 49ers are taking care of him, but he wants to coach those guys up front,” McNeill said in a recent phone interview. “It’s not that he couldn’t do it, but he wants to spend time with his guys. He loves every minute he spends with them.”

Ask Kocurek if he’d like to run his own defense and his response is as decisive as a bull rush on third-and-long.

“I love coaching guys with their hand in the ground,” Kocurek said.

In that way, Kocurek is similar to the late Bobb McKittrick, a trusted lieutenant of Bill Walsh who coached the 49ers’ offensive line from 1979 through 1999. McKittrick, rather than accepting other opportunities to be an offensive coordinator, stayed with his specialty throughout his professional career.

49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is demanding but has built a bond with the players he coaches. Dai Saguno/Bay Area News Group

In 2019, Shanahan brought in Kocurek after he’d coached the defensive line for a year in Miami and coached the Detroit Lions’ line from 2009 through 2017. General manager John Lynch believes the hire went far beyond shoring up the defensive front.

It helped provide an attitude adjustment for anyone who came in contact with Kocurek.

“I love his passion for the game,” Lynch said. “He lives it. He breathes it. I love what he does with our players, and I think it goes far beyond just the D-line. I think it translates to our entire team.”

The defensive line, which added Javon Hargrave in free agency to go along with holdovers Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa (when signed), will need to dominate for the 49ers to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Kocurek will coach his stars as hard as those on the fringe looking to improve their games. He gives as much of himself to Kerry Hyder Jr., T.Y. McGill, Kevin Givens, Alex Barrett, Clelin Ferrell, Drake Jackson and Austin Bryant as he does to Bosa.

Blunt, direct and occasionally profane, Kocurek’s style is straight ahead, which meshes perfectly with his philosophy of the defensive line never taking a backward step.

Let other teams get exotic and drop their linemen into coverage. Play for Kocurek and you can leave your backpedal at home.

“He allows guys to play free and play fast,” Bryant said. “He doesn’t bog you down mentally. He makes it simple. He allows you to do what you do best and just go. Use the talent God gave you. He’s not trying to be this All-American coach that has the best schemes in the world. He’s simple, straight to the point, and go do it fast.”

While Kocurek can still have a gruff exterior, time and life have given him a sense of perspective. His wife Amy is a breast cancer survivor, and he has a daughter born in 2020.

49ers defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell (94), Javon Hargrave (98) and Arik Armstead (91) take their orders from line coach Kris Kocurek. A.P. Photo

“Coach Kris has calmed down through the years,” Armstead said. “Having a daughter mellowed him out.”

Shanahan was amused at Armstead’s description.

“He may be more mellow, but that’s not to be confused with being mellow,” Shanahan said.

Kocurek appeared slightly taken aback at the characterization.

“I’ve never associated myself with the word ‘mellow,’ ” Kocurek said. “Maybe slightly more calm than I used to be. Not as much on edge. As a younger coach, I was the same age as some of the guys I was coaching so I felt I’d better establish my demeanor within the room.”

Barrett, a 49ers defensive end who was a rookie lineman in Detroit under Kocurek, has noticed the difference.

“Back in the day, he was hardcore,” Barrett said. “Things were just different then. But now we’ve got a bunch of grown men who can handle their stuff so he doesn’t have to be as intense.”

Not that anyone is confusing Kocurek with an old softie. He looks at his approach as a deal — give him your best and you’ll get his best. And none of it will be easy.

“Whatever I ask you to do, I’m going to invest myself as much as I’m asking you to invest, and it goes both ways,” Kocurek said. “I’m going to give you everything I can, whether it’s energy, effort or knowledge to help you become that player you envision yourself being. Then it’s just a matter of trust going both ways.”

Besides a competitive streak and a near-fanatical attention to detail, McNeill, now an assistant head coach at North Carolina State, believes Kocurek thrives as a defensive line coach by creating bonds that last a lifetime.

“They know Kris cares about them personally,” McNeill said. “That helps when Kris is raising the bar and getting after them a little bit. They know Kris is not trying to put them down, he’s pulling them up.”

Kocurek said he has several former players who reach out to him periodically, and Barrett said he will someday be one of them.

“Each player he’s built relationships with,” Barrett said, “he knows how they operate. He knows how they carry themselves as men. After football, Kris is going to be my guy if I ever need anything. He’s been there for me when I need him.”

Ferrell came to the 49ers in part because Rod Marinelli, who was his line coach with the Raiders, thought he and Kocurek would be a good match.

“Regardless of where you come from in the league, regardless of what a scout or a front office may have thought of you, coach Kris will take whatever ceiling you might have set for yourself and will take the ceiling off,” Ferrell said.

Ferrell is hoping to rejuvenate his career the way others such as Hyder, Arden Key and Charles Omenihu have done under Kocurek. His reputation as a fixer, plus his use of an attacking scheme that appeals to defensive linemen, has made the 49ers a preferred destination for defensive linemen who can embrace hard-nosed coaching.

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“It’s kind of a recurring thing, so I think guys see opportunities here and it’s got to match, for us actually wanting the skillset,” Kocurek said. “But yeah, I’d hope that guys want to come here and play in this scheme.”

But not until the new player gets a tutorial on everything that’s expected of them, and Kocurek isn’t shy about advising them to go elsewhere if they’re not totally on board.

“Any guy that gives his heart and soul to become a player while I’m coaching them and gives you everything they’ve got, you build respect for them,” Kocurek said. “I’ve told the guys a million times: You might hate me now but hopefully you’ll love me later.”