There is intense interest in the 49ers’ two first-round draft choices, tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati. But just as vital to the team’s offensive success this season might be the ability of the 49ers’ new offensive line coach Mike Solari and his assistant, Ray Brown, to mold and whittle their current 12 guys into a powerful unit.
Solari has a strong track record. He studied under the legendary Bobb McKittrick in San Francisco and spent 11 seasons in Kansas City, nine (1997-2005) as offensive line coach and two (2006-07) as offensive coordinator. He worked with Jimmy Raye for four years in KC, and his players there included studs like Will Shields, William Roaf and Brian Waters. He coached Seattle’s O-line in 2008 and 2009, and this year took over for Chris Foerster with the 49ers.
Face to face, Solari is a lot like the offensive lines he has produced: measured, consistent, quietly confident, a little vanilla. The guy is old school. I sat down with him in Santa Clara on Thursday, and here is what we talked about:
Who are your biggest influences?
“One of the key guys in Bobb McKittrick, in the sense of being here prior with the San Francisco 49ers. Learned quite a bit from him. And I’ve been very fortunate and blessed with some of the coaches I’ve worked for, and they’ve all had great influences on me, as far as a teacher and communicator and getting my point across.”
If you look at what you did in Kansas City and what you’re doing now, how similar is it?
“I think you have to change to the personnel. You do have change the personnel, without a doubt. I think you would want to do what they do best. But I think you’d see a lot of similarities with what we do as far as technique and fundamentals. I really believe in the basics, whether it’s footwork, whether it’s hat placement, whether it’s hand placement, and really take a lot of pride in the offensive line playing at a high level.”
Did you look at much 49ers film from 2009 to familiarize yourself with the linemen, or emphasize a fresh start?
“Let’s do both. I did go back and look at every game. Had to go back and look at every preseason game so I could get a good feel of the young guys that maybe didn’t have a lot of playing time, a Cody Wallace or an Alex Boone. But again, it’s just to get a feel for them. And again, it gives you and idea of what they can do physically and their level of play. And then obviously Coach Singletary wanted me to look at it to be able to evaluate, to rank, and then also to compare when they gave us a list of free agents to look at, in sthe sense of insert ’em, just to show where they would rank as far as the performance to the level of (where) our guys performed. Then when the next list came, the college, we were given a sense to evaluate ’em, and then again, the same thing: ‘This guy can play at this type of level. This guy would be able to push this guy. This guy here could start. This guy here would be a backup. This guy doesn’t help the team.’ And again, it’s to be able to know, in the sense of how a player can help your organization and your group.”
So what does a Mike Solari blocking scheme look like?
“The thing is, with this offensive line, it’s the San Francisco 49ers. It’s not Mike Solari. So again, it’s the San Francisco 49ers, and Jimmy Raye’s the offensive coordinator. Again, I think what you’ll see on the offensive line, and I take a lot pride, is their ability to work as one, their ability to function as one. You have to take a lot of pride that they do a great job in communicating and take a lot of pride that they are able to execute at a high level and be able to work as one.”
Have your drills and teaching methods changed a lot over the years?
“All the drills are very similar. All the drills are improved. Every year they get better. As a coach, you’re like a player. You must improve, otherwise you’ll be passed. So all the drills are very similar, but all the drills have been tweaked and improved, as far as be able to implement what we’re doing on the football field. The drills will be set up to simulate a game-line experience. My job is to put them in the best position to be successful, that they could perform at a high level. To do that, you gotta put ’em in game-like situations. You gotta put ’em in situations where it’s kind of like déjà vu – ‘I’ve been in this situation before.’ It’s a feel. Because there are, quote, unscouted looks, no matter who you are. No matter what level you coach at, there’s unscouted looks. And the thing they’ve got to be able to do is just be able to apply their rules, and again, to be able to execute and perform as one.”
Mike Singletary wants a tough, physical team. Is that consistent with your philosophy?
“Yes. Yes, it is. They’re gonna play with an attitude. I think whenever you see a line coached by myself, I think you’ll see an effort, an intensity by the offensive line that’ll exemplify that on the football field. But again, with Coach Singletary, it’s something that he looks for, he expects from his teams to exhibit. And he allows that, as far as the plays being called, the offense. You’ll see that more so. Say for example, last year, just say for example, ‘We’re a zone blocking team.’ You don’t see a physicality there. Now again, you’ll see guys coming off the ball. And again, getting movement at the point and so forth. But it’s a different, quote, physicality, than versus here at San Francisco. You’ll see more double teams with the 49er offense. You’ll see that, where that shows more physicality because of the blocking schemes and what we’re doing. So it will be highlighted here, with this offense that Jimmy Raye calls and that they do here at the 49ers.”
How is progress of the rookies?
“It’s good. Right now we’re right on schedule. You know, it’s very limited because you’re not in pads. So there’s only so much you can do. But it’s good as far as they’re doing a nice job in the classroom, they’re doing a nice job in shorts and blocking things as far as with shells when we’ve had opportunities in the OTAs. So to answer your question, good. And yet we have a long ways to go. We have a long ways to go, and the key thing is, again, Day One in training camp, that we’re able to work as one and be able to get the starting five together so they can be able to perform as one.”
When would you like to settle on your starting five?
“As soon as possible. As soon as possible. It can’t come quick enough. Yet it’s a situation where there’s really some real good competition going on among the group – and also for different roles. So that’s what so exciting about the offensive line right now. I think you’ll see a lot of competition, and therefore competition brings out the best in you, and brings out the best in competitors. So we’ll be able to see that. And it’s exciting to be a coach when you draft two first-round draft choices, because all of a sudden it brings a, quote, sense of urgency in the whole group. It sends a point. Those two young are working hard, and they’re developing, yet they have a long ways to go because we’re only going into Week 3 here.”