49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has ‘mellowed’ while maintaining dedication and discipline within his unit
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When the 49ers’ offseason program concludes to begin summer vacation, coach Kyle Shanahan encourages his players to stay prepared during their 40-day break before training camp. Don’t let yourself get out of shape. Arrive with a clear head and be ready to hit the ground running.
Not so much for the coaches. Shanahan enjoys getting away to “do the things we don’t want the players to do.”
Kris Kocurek, the 49ers’ manic defensive line coach, finds that difficult to swallow.He recalls sleeping through the night before football games and track meets at Caldwell High School in Texas, anticipating his next pass rush move or a personal best in the shot put.
Kocurek is 44 years old now, and some of his rough edges have softened as a result of life experience. Nonetheless, Kocurek is looking forward to getting back into the trenches with his teammates.
“It’s mid-summer, we’re on break, and I can’t sleep at night thinking about the first day of training camp,” Kocurek explained. “I wish there was an off button, but that’s how I’ve always been.”
Kocurek is one of the best shows on the market for training camp junkies. Over the last month, he’s been out there with his hat on backwards and a sweat-soaked 49ers T-shirt, pushing, prodding, and demanding maximum effort and attention to the smallest detail.
You can bet he’ll bring that same energy to the 49ers’ regular-season practices now that training camp is over.
When DeMeco Ryans left to become head coach of the Houston Texans, there was speculation that Kocurek would take his place. Ruffin McNeill, Kocurek’s position coach and mentor at Texas Tech in 2000, wasn’t convinced.
“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 explained over the phone recently. “It’s not that he couldn’t do it; it’s just that he wants to spend time with his buddies.” He enjoys every moment he spends with them.”
When you ask Kocurek if he wants to run his own defense, his answer is as decisive as a bull rush on third-and-long.
“I love coaching guys with their hands in the ground,” said Kocurek.
In that regard, Kocurek is similar to the late Bobb McKittrick, a close friend of Bill Walsh who coached the 49ers’ offensive line from 1979 to 1999. McKittrick stayed with his specialty throughout his professional career, rather than accepting other opportunities to be an offensive coordinator.
Shanahan hired Kocurek in 2019 after he coached the defensive line for a year in Miami and the line for the Detroit Lions from 2009 to 2017. According to general manager John Lynch, the hire went far beyond bolstering the defensive front.
It aided in the mental adjustment of anyone who came into contact with Kocurek.
“I love his passion for the game,” Lynch said. “He is a part of it. He inhales it. I admire what he does with our players, and I believe it extends far beyond the defensive line. I believe it applies to our entire team.”
For the 49ers to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the defensive line, which added Javon Hargrave in free agency to join holdovers Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa (when signed), must dominate.
Kocurek will work as hard with his stars as he will with those on the outskirts who want to improve their games. Kerry Hyder Jr., T.Y. McGill, Kevin Givens, Alex Barrett, Clelin Ferrell, Drake Jackson, and Austin Bryant all get as much of him as Bosa.
Kocurek’s style is direct, blunt, and occasionally profane, which fits perfectly with his defensive line philosophy of never taking a step back.
Allow other teams to get creative by dropping their linemen into coverage. You can leave your backpedal at home if you play for Kocurek.
“He allows guys to play free and fast,” Bryant explained. “He doesn’t drain your mental energy. He simplifies things. He lets you do what you do best and simply go. Use the gift that God has given you. He is not attempting to be an All-American coach with the best schemes in the world. He’s straightforward, to the point, and quick.”
While Kocurek retains a gruff exterior, time and life have given him perspective. Amy, his wife, is a breast cancer survivor, and he will have a daughter in 2020.
“Coach Kris has calmed down through the years,” Armstead said. “Having a daughter mellowed him out.”
Shanahan found Armstead’s description amusing.
“He may be more mellow, but that is not the same as being mellow,” Shanahan explained.
Kocurek appeared surprised by the characterization.
“I’ve never associated myself with the word’mellow,'” said Kocurek. “Perhaps a little more calm than I used to be.” Not quite as tense. I was the same age as some of the guys I was coaching as a younger coach, so I felt I should establish my demeanor within the room.”
Barrett, a 49ers defensive end who was a rookie lineman under Kocurek in Detroit, has noticed a difference.
“Back in the day, he was a hardcore,” Barrett remarked. “Everything was different back then. But now that we have a group of mature men who can handle their business, he doesn’t have to be as intense.”
Nobody confuses Kocurek with an elderly softie. He sees his approach as a bargain: give him your best, and he’ll give you his best. None of this 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 stated. “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, whether it’s energy, effort, or knowledge, to help you become the player you want to be.” Then it’s just a matter of mutual trust.”
Aside from 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 forging lifelong bonds.
“They know Kris cares about them personally,” McNeill explained. “It helps when Kris raises the bar and goes after them a little harder.” They realize Kris is pulling them up, not putting them down.”
Kocurek said he has several former players who contact him on a regular basis, and Barrett said he hopes to be one of them someday.
“He knows how each player he’s built relationships with operates,” Barrett said. He is aware of how they carry themselves as men. Kris is going to be my guy after football if I ever need anything. He’s always been there for me when I’ve needed him.”
Ferrell joined the 49ers in part because his former Raiders line coach, Rod Marinelli, thought he and Kocurek would be a good fit.
“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 knock it off,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell hopes to revitalize his career in the same way that others like Hyder, Arden Key, and Charles Omenihu have done under Kocurek. His reputation as a fixer, combined with his use of an attacking scheme that appeals to defensive linemen, has made the 49ers a preferred destination for defensive linemen willing to embrace tough coaching.
“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 explained. “But, yeah, I’d hope that guys want to come here and play in this scheme.”
But only after the new player receives a tutorial on everything that is expected of them, and Kocurek isn’t afraid to tell them to go elsewhere if they aren’t completely 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.”