Steve Wilks looks to put own stamp on 49ers defense

Santa Clara – The 49ers opened their rookie minicamp Friday afternoon. Prior to practice beginning, new 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks met with the media for the first time.

Here is the transcript courtesy of the 49ers PR Department.

Opening Comments: 

“First off, I want to say how happy I am to be here. It didn’t take me long to really realize why this place is so successful. You see it from the outside, from afar, but once I got here and had the opportunity to meet ownership to spend some time with [general manager] John [Lynch] and [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan], it all came to reality for me, so to be here is definitely a blessing for me. To be around this talented defense, the players that we have and the things that we were able to do in free agency and also in the draft, I’m extremely excited and looking forward to the season. I know you guys have tons of questions and with that, I’ll open up the floor.”


Obviously, you come here with your own ideas and your own system. When you walk into a place where what has been done in the past has worked, how do you balance that, putting your own stamp on the team while just keeping things the way they were? 


“I think you have to embrace the success that they’ve had here. I think it is a foundation that we all agree we wanted to keep and I think it is an opportunity as we go through the process, which we already have, to try to tweak things a little bit. I still think there’s room for improvement. If you talk to the players, they would tell you the same, so when it’s not broke, you don’t really want to try to fix it and once again, we’ve had a lot of success around here and we just want to continue to build on that.”


Kyle mentioned that one of the things he wanted you to do first was to look back at all six years of this regime and the defense that they had instilled before, what was your biggest takeaway or what have been your biggest takeaways looking at what the 49ers have done since 2017? 

“I think, and my philosophy is the same, I’ve always had this, everything we do starts up front. When you look at how dominant we’ve been over the years, it is because of our defensive line and we’ve done a great job building that through the draft. As I just alluded to, we did some great things in free agency this past year. [Defensive line coach Kris] Kocurek does a tremendous job. He’s one of the best in the business at what he does and he’s had a major impact on his defense, so that was really the biggest thing that stood out to me, was just how great we were up front consistently over the years.”

This offseason, John Lynch talked about how the defensive line was really stellar back in 2019 and it kind of dropped off a little bit, even though they’re ranked number two, top five defense last year. What have you seen from the progress of the defensive line and then looking forward, with the draft picks and the free agent signings?  

“Well, I think you have to go back to personnel and I think you’ve seen what we’ve been able to do as far as drafting certain guys. [DT Javon] Kinlaw has just been tremendous since I’ve been here. The day that I came in on my interview, he was here working out. He has not missed a day of offseason training, so I’m excited to see exactly where he’s going to be. The same thing with [DL] Drake [Jackson]. Drake has been here all spring working out, doing the things that he needs to do to improve his game. He’s gained a lot of weight, he’s in there with Kocurek and I’m just excited to see exactly what he’s going to do and how he’s going to progress in his second year. You know what we did in free agency with [DL] Javon [Hargrave], one of the best three-technique interior linemen in the National Football League. I’m excited and I can be up here all day long talking about the defensive player of the year [DL Nick Bosa], so we have a great front. We have to continue to build on that and the one thing that I’m emphasizing and talking about, we have to complement each other, so there’s different layers to this defense and the backend has to do a great job.”

That defensive player the year you speak of, what jumps out at you? What kind of interactions have you had with him the last few months? 

“Just through text and they have all been great. I’ve only heard great things about him, even before I got here. Just his personality, going around the league, different guys that I know and how they just rant and rave about him. The work ethic that he has most importantly is just across the board. The standard is set here. These guys work extremely hard and I’m so impressed of just watching those guys work even in phase one. I would just watch the individual period every day and just see how they work at all three levels of the defense and Bosa is a leader of that. He exemplifies that each and every day.”

This defense has played zone coverage at a very high-level for a while. Talking to CB Darrell Luter Jr. yesterday, the rookie, he said he played mostly press-man coverage in college. Is that an element you’d like to incorporate in his defense a little bit more? 

“I think you have to explore and experiment with everything. My background is diverse in zone as well as man, and I think it can change each week based off your opponent and who you playing. Do I feel like we have the skillset to play more man? Yes. At times, do I want to be a little bit more aggressive with the talent and athleticism that we have at linebacker? Yes.”

And when you say that aggressive with the talent you have at linebacker, what are you referring to? 

“I’m referring to exactly the question they just talked about in regards to probably blitzing a little bit more. I believe in zone eyes, I think that’s how you make plays on the football, particularly from the underneath positions, so zone is still going to be a high-element of what we do, but I feel like we have the skillset and the talent to be able to get in a guy’s face, press man, make the quarterback hold the ball, particularly with our front.”

You mentioned Drake Jackson, what did you see from him when you reviewed his rookie tape? 

“A lot of inconsistency, I saw a lot of talent, a lot of skillset, but someone that needs to really, as I just talked about, get a little stronger, get a little bigger and he’s working hard, so I’m looking forward to him once again, taking that sophomore leap. That second year and really improving and doing some good things.”


After Carolina made the decision they did, what was your level of disappointment there and what were the things that were important to you for your next position?  

“I’m going to answer the second question first; my next thought was surrounding myself with good people. I think that’s the key to everything that you do. You can have the talent and the skillset, but you need players. You need an organization that’s committed. You need a head coach and a GM that’s aligned with one another and when the opportunity came when I got the phone call, this was a perfect fit for me.”

You mentioned Javon Hargrave, how much time have you spent with him this offseason, and with both of you coming in new, what kind of unique perspectives does that give you guys? 

“I haven’t spent a lot of time with him. We’ve been talking back and forth. We do have a connection just from the mere fact that he resides and lives in Charlotte as well. Born and raised right outside of Charlotte in Salisbury, NC, so a lot of guys that I coach he’s real close with, so just that mutual friendship that we have. I’m excited to have him as a part of the 49ers. I know he’s going to be a huge addition for us this year.”

Kyle has talked about how his dad became the offensive coordinator here in ‘92, it was a similar situation to you, joining an already very successful organization. Everything’s kind of in place and he stayed away from his family and was here for three months, I don’t know if that was a mandate, like leave your family behind, but was there this kind of three-month process of just absorbing this defense and learning everything you could? 

“Yes, it’s still an ongoing process in regards to just making the move with my family. We were all on the same page in this decision. I don’t make any decisions without really involving my family, so I had total support there, but I think always in the transition of going to a new place, you want to have that extra time just to be able to dive into watching more tape, staying here late, trying to get to know the guys a little bit more, building relationships I think is critical, so that was part of the process.”


They’re on the other side of the ball, but RB Christian McCaffrey and QB Sam Darnold, you know them very well from being in Carolina. How do you see their paths going forward here? 

“Hopefully they’re going to have a lot of success. Both of those guys are extremely talented. I’m glad that they’re on our team. I’m glad we’re here together. It was disappointing to lose Christian last year, but he has definitely made a difference here with the 49ers and I’m glad to be able to be a part of that now.”

You brought in S Myles Hartsfield from Carolina and CB Isaiah Oliver. Can you talk a little bit about them and how they fit your defense? 

“I think it’s always important if you can have someone, whether it’s a player or coach that’s somewhat familiar with your system or in this situation, your philosophy, he can be an extension of you on the field, coaching the guys, also in the locker room and then also in the classroom. So that was an important factor for me. He’s a good football player as well. Oliver is someone that I had the opportunity to go against being in that division and we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in free agency with [Houston Texans DB] Jimmie [Ward] and when that didn’t happen, we wanted to make sure that we sort of got the best nickel in free agency and that’s what we went out and did, so I’m excited about Oliver. He’s long, he’s physical, can tackle, can cover, he’s going to be a good blitzer for us, everything that we do within this defense.”

John Lynch talked a lot about the collaboration between the personnel department and the coaching staff during the draft. What type of role did you have during list draft with the 49ers? 

“Just like all the assistant coaches, we go through the process of what personnel gives us in evaluating different guys at our position. I think we do a great job of really as John alluded to, collaborating and getting everybody’s thoughts and opinions. And when it came down to it, particularly one guy, [S] Ji’Ayir Brown, we’re all on the same page in regards to how we felt about him and what he could bring to the 49ers.”

You felt strong enough to stand on the table for him, what was it about him? 

“His tape just jumped off at you. He just makes plays, but having an opportunity, we didn’t go to the combine, we did zooms, but even when you are there, those 15 minutes don’t give justice for us really trying to get to know someone. And we do a huge thing here where we bring our 30 in all at the same time we have dinner, top golf and as you get into a social setting, I think you have more conversations. He just started growing on me, the conversation that we’re having, his dedication to the game, he’s mature, he sees it with a different lens and I said, this guy right here can be the future for us, so I was excited about it and I’m glad we got him.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise if you became a head coach candidate again in the next cycle, was there a discussion about how long you would be here? 

“I’m going to tell you, and this is not a just an answer to throw you off or anything like that, but I believe in being where your feet are. Be where your feet are and take care of what’s in front of you. I started out at Johnson C. Smith University, a division two school, small school right there in Charlotte, North Carolina. I didn’t think about where I would be. I had dreams of it, but I’ve always just tried to win the day. And that’s where I am right now, I’m not even looking beyond OTAs. I just want to make sure this defense is the best it can be and we’re going to continue to build this thing in layers.”

This article has 6 Comments

  1. I wish all the best for Wilks. But in all honesty, his only job is to keep a top rated defense on top in 2023.
    If Wilks can add a few more positive wrinkles by incorporating his own strengths, well, the more the better.

    I wasn’t very happy how the defense collapsed in the NFC Championship game. Sure, we lost our starting QB before the offense had time to work-up a sweat, but a great defense (although continually hurt by a mistake ridden offense) has to step up to the plate.
    Hopefully, Wilks can help in this area going forward.

    1. I share some of the disappointment in the defense’s ‘collapse’..but, also understand that after Brock went down, the offense was unable to mount any drives of substance, unable to use up the clock and score..putting the defense on the field for more extended drives by Philly, with little rest in between….they were worn out….had Purdy not gotten hurt, I seriously believe it would have been a different game, with a different outcome..

      1. I agree. The D was put in an untenable position in that game. That was a one off. I expect the Niners D to be at or near the top of the pile again this year.

      2. 55,
        I totally agree with you. But all we really have is what happened in the NFC Championship game.
        We can both present many scenarios of “what if’s” to that game, but nothing changes the outcome.

        The 49ers brought in some good FA defensive help leading into the 2022 season and that also fell short in that particular game.
        Wilkes is on the hot-seat before the 2023 season starts, imho. Why? because his job will be to sustain and hopefully improve on a defense that is already top shelf.
        Building a top 5 defense is one, maintaining a top 5 defense is another.

  2. 2 things stick out to me in this interview.

    Wilks is right. The dropoff in the D-line play since 2019 is personnel related. Trading DeForest Buckner and drafting Javon Kinlaw was a mistake if your philosophy is that the D-Line is the heart of your team. Buckner is an ironman and Kinlaw can’t stay on the field. It’s unfortunate but it’s the truth. Plus Buckner is just a flat out better player. You can argue that the 49ers had to give up Buckner to bolster other positions but even then Kinlaw has been a bust. I really like Kinlaw. Dude is immensely talented but that knee just won’t cooperate.

    I’m a little surprised on the talking points on Jackson. I thought Jackson needed to slim down – not beef up. I recall he showed up to camp out of shape last year. Maybe it’s just semantics but Jackson seems like a player you want to maximize his athleticism so why do you want him to get bigger? I can see being in shape and improving strength and speed so maybe that’s the goal. Just seems weird the way Wilks is framing that.

    1. At the Combine he was only 254, and Zierlein compared him to Eli Harold, quoting a scout who said, “He should have kept his weight up instead of trying to lose it. He’s a good athlete regardless of weight and he’s not big or strong enough right now.”

      However, when he played last year, he impressed. It’s reasonable to think they knew what they were getting and bet on his character, so it’s very good to hear he’s keeping his part of the bargain, so the speak, of getting stronger and bigger.

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