SANTA CLARA — This is the transcript of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s Wednesday press conference, courtesy of the 49ers P.R. department.
What’s the plan for LB Reuben Foster as far as bringing him along? What are you putting on his plate at this point?
“He’s in great shape. He could have went today. He could have went the first day he was allowed back. But, just like all the other guys, they’ve had a due process of phase one, phase two, going through the different phases of the offseason. So, we’re just giving him a chance to get back into it. Don’t rush him. There’s no need. Hopefully we can get him back to practicing soon.”
Was there any contact you had with him during the time that he was away? Are you having to get him back up to speed with the installing?
What kind of level of excitement did he have when he came back last week?
“We’re all excited. The whole organization matches his enthusiasm, and that’s not just because of Reuben the player, but Reuben the person. For people who don’t know him, and who don’t have the privilege to know him, really don’t understand what a great human being he actually is.”
Is the hope still to get him a spot that he can handle?
“It’s a work in progress. We’ve got a pretty good group of inside linebackers, so we’re going to let it play out the way it needs to. They’re all learning how to be communicators. We’re setting it up to make sure that the two best linebackers are on the football field.”
Is LB Malcolm Smith playing a lot of the MIKE just because he hasn’t played it in the past?
“He’s played MIKE. When he was at Oakland he played MIKE, so he’s used to communicating. He knows our defense just about as good as anybody. So he’s able to work through that communication. We’ve got a lot of young guys. It just eases the minds of everybody around them when you’ve got a guy in the middle who can make the call, be vocal. With [LB] Brock [Coyle] down and all of our young guys, again, everyone is learning how to be that communicator and play that MIKE. As we’ve said before, that MIKE and WILL are pretty interchangeable. So, if he has to switch back to the WILL, we’re not worried about him being able to from a schematic standpoint.”
With Reuben last year, he wasn’t able to provide much participation because of the shoulder. With him jumping into drills maybe next week or in mini-camp or beyond, the fact that he has a year under his belt in this system, how do you think that’s going to help him?
“It’ll help. Shoot, if he gets one snap of practice it’ll be more than what he got a year ago, like you said. So, we’re excited he’s here. We’re excited that he’s working. We’re excited that he’s in meetings. He’s excited. The guys, his teammates are excited. Getting him up to speed won’t take as long and I promise you, when he gets out there, he’s going to be like a fireball. That’ll be cool to see.”
I feel like no player embodied your all gas, no brakes, more than him. He was so proud of it last year. He seemed to always bring an energy into the room. Did you feel a bounce last Thursday when he came back in?
“Yeah. The guys, we were talking about it the other day, we have a really, really good team, offense, defense, special teams, in terms of men who just want to work, do things the right way. They’re actually bringing the juice every day, they are. There’s a lot less coaching with regards to run to the ball, play with that energy and that effort, because they’re bringing it themselves. The locker room’s kind of taken over from that regard. So, that’s what’s really cool about this group. The excitement for Reuben is there no doubt. But, the overall bringing energy and juice, those guys in the locker room have really taken that over.”
How has DB Jimmie Ward played at cornerback and what’s going to be the plan with him once CB Richard Sherman comes back healthy?
“Jimmie is in competition. There’s no promises. So, the plan is status quo. He is going to play corner and he’s going to get reps and he’s going to compete. I know it sounds like coach speak, but the two best corners will play corner. Do I doubt Sherm will return to form? No, I don’t doubt it at all. I think he’s going to come back and he’s going to play great and there’s going to be really good competition. There’s [CB] Ahkello [Witherspoon] on the other side who is competing, so there’s nothing set in stone for that spot. It’s good that the group that [general manager] John [Lynch], [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan], [senior personnel executive] Martin [Mayhew] and [vice president of player personnel] Adam Peters have put together. There’s a really good group of guys that can all compete.”
Is he only playing corner during OTAs?
He hasn’t been getting any reps in the slot?
Do you envision that being a possibility once training camp starts?
“It could be. When you’re trying to get somebody acclimated to a position, they need reps. It’s very hard to ask a guy to play corner, nickel when he needs to get re-acclimated to playing corner again. Jimmie is a very, very talented football player and he’s doing a lot of great things, but there’s an adjustment period. He’s got to re-learn a position, so we want to make sure that we give him every opportunity to do that.”
Can you talk a little bit about the influence of Richard Sherman as a coach on the field?
“Sherm? Gosh, I love that guy. He really is a great leader. Again, it’s the same thing. For people who actually get to work with him on a day to day basis, you really actually understand who he is and where he comes from when he does speak. He’s a tremendous leader. He’s got tremendous knowledge of football and he’s got all these little player tricks that he can share with these guys. We’ve got such a young group that when he does speak, they do listen. The great thing about him is he’s always backed it up. Not only from a playing standpoint, but from a mental standpoint, from an effort standpoint, from a studying standpoint. Just in general, as a football player, he’s always backed it up. That’s what makes his words even more powerful than some who don’t embody that.”
DL Solomon Thomas seems like he’s used to the system now. He’s lost some weight. Do you have any different plans on how you’ll use him?
“No, the plan for Solomon is the same. He’s on the edges during base downs and he’ll come in and rush the passer on the inside. We’re very excited about Solomon and what he’s been showing. He’s really starting to understand the pass rush part of it, in terms of attacking half a man and taking away space with his get-off. Those guys rushing as a unit, it’s starting to take shape and you can see where it’s going to head. Hopefully with Solomon, people are going to look at production, but I think he’s going to be a lot better production or not, he’s going to be a much better football player this year.”
Did you ask him to lose some weight just to improve his get-off?
“No. He’ll be fine once training camp comes. Their weights, they’re football players, so their weights always fluctuate. I’m not worried about his weight.”
LB Pita Taumoepenu was talking last year about how you guys wanted him to put on about 10 pounds. He looks bigger. Has he met where you guys want him to be physically?
“Yeah. He looks really good. He still has a great get-off. His pass rush is starting to come together. We’ve got him playing a little bit of SAM linebacker, so the mental part is an adjustment for him. So, he’s got to learn that stuff. But, Pita does everything 110 miles per hour, so I don’t think it will take him very long to figure it all out.”
Coach has talked about LB Eli Harold playing both SAM and LEO. Will Pita do the same thing?
“Same thing. So, Pita, [LB] Dekoda [Watson], [DL] Cassius Marsh, Eli Harold, it’s like we said the SAM and LEO, they’re interchangeable. We want to make sure that in base downs, those LEOs are on the football field, giving up a little bit of size in exchange for a little bit more pass rush. Those guys are taking to it and they’re figuring it out. Eli is doing a great job, along with Marsh, Pita and Dekoda. They’re all doing a really nice job. So, to get them some more LEO reps for sure.”
How much more comfortable overall as a group do you think these guys are in their second full offseason of the system as opposed to when you first came in and installed it last year?
“They’re much more comfortable. You’re still going to learn. There’s still a lot of ‘A-ha’ moments for the guys because they’ve started piecing things together now that we can reset and slow it down. They understand the day one install. They can see how it all ties together rather than going through the season and then figuring it out as the year went. You could see the light come on for a lot of why’s, why we do things. Because of it, they’ll play faster, they’ll communicate quicker, they’ll see formations quicker. It is cool. You are seeing a lot of carryover.”
Are you seeing that with Solomon, especially, given that he didn’t show up until training camp last year?
“For sure. Solomon’s big thing is that when you come in as a first-year rookie and you’re trying to create an identity for yourself, that’s always the hardest part, especially as a pass rusher. Solomon’s really starting to understand who he is as a pass rusher and he’s starting to work that and you can see it come into fruition with him. I know we’re early in OTAs so there’s still a long way to go, but he’s on the right path. He’s doing the right things. We’ll see, especially when pads come on.”
You made a couple of changes to your staff in the offseason. Inside Linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans in particular, what did you like about the job he did for you last year?
“DeMeco, he did a great job last year supporting [run game specialist/outside linebackers coach] Johnny [Holland]. Johnny got the bump up to run game specialist. He does an unbelievable job breaking down the opponent run game and making sure that our fronts are set the right way and making sure that we understand our run fits and having that all organized for our game plan week and really throughout OTAs. DeMeco, he’s just got a great presence to him. He’s very, very smart. He wants to do things the right way so he’s full of questions. The three most dangerous words in football are, ‘I got it.’ As soon as you think you have it, you’re going to go backwards. He’s a guy that has never lived that. Even as a player, he has never lived in an ‘I got it’ world. He’s always trying to go further. So, with DeMeco, he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’s capable of as a football coach.”
What do you make of your rookies so far, particularly LB Fred Warner, DB D.J. Reed Jr. and DB Tarvarius Moore?
“It’s a really smart group, a really smart group. They have talent for sure, but their ability to take in all of that information that we’re giving them and apply it to the football field and still play fast and use your athleticism this fast, this quickly, is pretty cool. But, I always hold judgment on a rookie until the pads come on because a lot of things change.”
Cassius Marsh is a guy that you targeted to bring back this offseason. How has he been so far?
“He’s been great. When he first got here, if I remember right, we talked about that he is the definition of all gas, no brakes. The guy is just on tilt whenever he’s in the building. Even though he got the contract extension, he still embodies that. He wants to do more. He’s always asking to do more, so having him is great.”
What does pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin bring to the pass rush coaching staff?
“Between him and [defensive line coach Jeff] Zgonina, they’re doing a great job, both of them, they really are, with regards to just creating an identity of what we need to be on defense. When you look at the overall structure of our defense, there’s no gray area in the way we teach. The run game is fit exactly the way we fit it. Our coverages, there’s no gray area. There’s no gray area in our alignments. There’s a very defined role for everybody. When it got to pass rush, between Zgonina and coach Kiffin, they’re doing a very, very good job eliminating all of the gray area in pass rush. Creating a black and white picture so those guys understand exactly what job each person has, so they can learn how to play off of each other and they can rush as a unit. Between those guys, they’re doing a great job early. I think our guys, the players, are starting to understand exactly what it’s supposed to look like. We’re excited. We’re excited to see what those guys are capable of once they learn how to rush as a unit.”
Regarding the pass rush, you might have potential but I don’t think there’s a guy with more than 10 career sacks on the roster. Why do you think there is enough pass rush on the team right now?
“You look at [DL DeForest Buckner] Buck, you look at Solomon, there’s enough talent on our D-Line. These guys, with football players the difference between the top guy and the next guy is very little. We do think Buck is a dominant football player. We think Solomon’s got great upside. [DL] Arik’s [Armstead] still got tremendous upside, a ceiling that he hasn’t even touched yet. Then you look at all of the LEOs, between Eli, Dekoda, Pita, Cassius, [DL Jeremiah] Attaochu, even [DL Ronald] Ronny Blair [III] rushing on the inside. There’s a lot of guys, I could name all of them. But, they’re all fighting to show something so they can get opportunities to rush the passer this year. Sometimes, you know, when you’re able to rush as a group, as a unit, especially with the way it’s being designed, they can be very effective as a unit. They can. So, not every team has a [Los Angeles Chargers DE] Joey Bosa or a [Denver Broncos OLB] Von Miller, where they can just take a complete game over. But, there’s a lot of teams that have four really good rushers and they are very effective rushing the passer and that’s what we’re trying to build to be. Who knows, you might be surprised. There might be a star out of the bunch. I have a feeling there might be.”
At strong safety, S Jaquiski Tartt obviously is the starter. With Jimmie playing corner, do you have a plan for depth behind him?
“There’s a lot of youth behind Tartt and [DB Adrian] Colbert. Between those young guys, someone’s got to step up. We’ve got a lot of faith in what we have with that group. There’s three guys that haven’t even been able to practice this offseason so far because of injuries between [S] Chanceller James, [DB] Don Jones and the rookie we took from Florida. There is a lot of youth and those backup spots are definitely open.”
When you look at Fred Warner’s skill set, do you see a guy that can potentially do more than just inside linebacker based on what he did at BYU?
“No. He’ll be an inside linebacker. I guess I’m not understanding the question.”
They had a special position for him at BYU. It was kind of a strongside linebacker that can drop back kind of thing.
“That defensive structure doesn’t really translate to the things we do. One thing that has been very encouraging, because he’s played outside, you see glimpses of what he’d look like behind the ball. Because of the way offenses are played in college, you really never get to see him go through keys and feel those gaps, feel the run games and go through a process of what we ask our linebackers to go through. Early on, he’s shown really good heavy hands, which is a great pleasant surprise. Then, his ability to read and diagnose and do all of those things has been really, really good. Now he’s just got to continue to build, continue to take all of that information that we’re giving him and just keep going faster, faster and faster and start implementing. When pads come on, we’ll see. But, he’s been good so far.”