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Robert Kupbens-USA TODAY Sports

49ers coordinator Nick Sorensen previews his defense, discusses Brandon Staley’s role and more

May 10, 2024 at 2:01 PM

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New 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen may not have all the answers yet in regards to how his defense will perform in the upcoming season, but it sounds like his approach will remain largely similar to what the team has done in the past under head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Sorensen held his first media session as 49ers defensive coordinator before the team's rookie minicamp on Friday and provided a glimpse on how he wants his defense to look once they take the field in September. The plan is to show the NFL that the 49ers haven't changed much in terms of intensity and flying to the ball.

"I want them to see we're still the standard of what we've always been -- an attacking defense that plays fast," Sorensen said. "We play violent. We play with speed, and we finish."

Sorensen, 45, spent ten seasons in the NFL as a safety and special teams standout with the Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Cleveland Browns before beginning his coaching career with the Seattle Seahawks as an assistant special teams coach in 2013. Sorensen became an assistant defensive backs coach for the Seahawks in 2016 before taking over as the secondary coach in 2017, then later spent one season with the Jaguars as a special teams coordinator in 2021 before joining the 49ers as a defensive assistant in 2022. He carried the title of defensive pass game specialist last season before being promoted to defensive coordinator after the firing of Steve Wilks following Super Bowl LVIII.

Sorensen will be taking a significant step up in the expectations and pressure department compared to what he's faced in the past, but he says he's ready for the role and is looking forward to the challenge ahead.

"Yeah, I'm excited," Sorensen said. "We all know the standard here and we all want to win. We all want to play great defense, and that's the expectation. But I have that on myself. Our coaches do. Our players do. What is said (on the outside), I'm not really worried about it. I just know what we want to get done and what I want to get done.

"So regardless of what's said, good or bad, I just work and go the next day, and work and go the next day, and then work and try and provide our players with the best information and challenge them to be the best that they can be, and then everything will be just fine."

Providing Sorensen some assistance along the way will be Brandon Staley, whom the 49ers hired as an assistant head coach when the decision was made to promote Sorensen to defensive coordinator. Staley is a defensive-minded coach coming off a three-year stint as head coach for the Los Angeles Chargers and has already been an asset for Sorensen as he continues his transition into the coordinator role.

"He has experience as a coordinator. He has experience as a head coach. So he sees things holistically," Sorensen said of Staley. "He knows how to build plans. Then just getting him in here and spending extra hours of just talking football with him, he's very bright and really a humble guy who's smart and knows football. That's been really awesome and helpful for me."

Sorensen also elaborated more on what Staley will be doing with the 49ers. Both Sorensen and Staley were considered for the defensive coordinator role after the firing of Wilks, but Staley apparently will have more of an all-around role for the 49ers that will occasionally complement Sorensen.

"It's more holistic," Sorensen said. "He's been kind of helping me overall. He's been involved with pretty much everything... I've been kind of talking him through how we play certain things. Watching stuff throughout the league that other teams do, and some of the things that he did -- would this fit? Would it not fit in our defense? And some things I was familiar with from just watching different defenses, you naturally see other defenses do things.

"He's been more connected with the DBs and the nickels, but he also has experience elsewhere with the ends and outside linebackers. But with the staff that we have, I think for me it's going to be really helpful that he's done it before and he's had success, and he's been a head coach as well. Like I said, it's been great."

Among the challenges Sorensen will face in the weeks and months ahead is working with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek to shape a unit that went through a heavy amount of turnover in the offseason. Gone is mainstay Arik Armstead and former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw, as well as the two in-season additions the 49ers made last year in defensive ends Randy Gregory and Chase Young. Among those who will be competing to replace those players are two free-agent additions at defensive end in Leonard Floyd and Yetur Gross-Matos, along with two free-agent defensive tackles in Maliek Collins and Jordan Elliott.

The transition will continue on the defensive line for the remainder of the offseason workout schedule and into training camp and the preseason, but there's optimism that the unit will eventually round into the type of force the 49ers expect from their defensive line.

"The NFL, it's tough," Sorensen said. "There's changes all the time, whether it's coaching or players. We were fortunate to have a lot of these guys like Arik for a long time. He did a lot of great things for us, but we did replace him and JK and some of the guys we had last year with some guys we're really excited about -- Floyd and Maliek inside, then getting Jordan Elliott as well, Yetur Gross-Matos. We've got some young guys mixed in with some veteran guys that really have performed.

"And we're really excited about also that we have them for a couple years. It's not like last year where we had gotten the guys who were kind of one year and gone. It's someone that can get in our system with Coach Kocurek and really just be aggressive and attack as far as changing things. No, we're going to be aggressive. We're going to do what we do and be an attacking defense."

There's also a question mark at linebacker, where the 49ers could be without starter Dre Greenlaw for some time as he continues to heal from a torn Achilles. The 49ers also lost backup and special teams standout Oren Burks in free agency while adding veterans De'Vondre Campbell and Ezekiel Turner along with seventh-round draft pick Tatum Bethune. Campbell, Turner, and Bethune will join a group that consists of Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Curtis Robinson, and second-year players Dee Winters and Jalen Graham as the team looks to shape a unit around team leader Fred Warner.

"We got De'Vondre Campbell, another really good (addition) for us," Sorensen said. "The guy's been a really good player in the league for a long time. He's been a Pro Bowler. We're excited about that. But also with the development of Jalen Graham and Dee, the way that those guys play -- again, Jalen played more of, you know, he was a high school quarterback. He was more of like a safety type that played more out of the box like Fred Warner did, that you kind of move in. So sometimes, you know, with him, it's just making that transition.

Then Dee has come a long way, too. We love his play style. He plays fast, he's physical. And I think both those guys, so far, what we've seen, they just continue to grow and we want to see them compete once we get to these next couple weeks and then into training camp."

In the secondary, the 49ers have a slew of familiar faces in cornerbacks Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, Darrell Luter, and Ambry Thomas, as well as safeties Ji'Ayir Brown, Tayler Hawkins, and Talanoa Hufanga, who is currently sidelined as he recovers from a Torn ACL. But there will also be a number of new players in the mix, including free agent cornerback Isaac Yiadom and two rookies in second-round pick Renardo Green and fourth-round pick Malik Mustapha. One task Sorensen will face with this group is finding roles for Green and Mustafa, who are listed at cornerback and safety, respectively, but have the capability of playing a number of roles.

"I just think with safety today and defensive backs today, you need to be versatile. Even linebackers," Sorensen said. "I mean, look at what we've done with certain guys that have kind of been in different positions, and it's such a fast game and offenses look to expose you in certain ways. So you have to be versatile. We like when guys have the versatility (of Mustapha), but we also just loved his playstyle. Even with Renardo Green, it's how he played, and even with Tatum Bethune, it's. They fit how we want to play football and how we do play football. And when we see guys like that, it's like, 'Okay, do they fit us?' And he does."

One thing Sorensen has decided about his approach this season is whether he'll be in the booth or on the sidelines. Wilks started the season in the booth last year before moving to the sidelines, but Sorensen plans on being there from day one.

"I'll be on the field. I like being on the field," Sorensen said. "I was a player and it feels good to be on the field and I want to look to players in the eyes and talk to them and I feel like that'll be the right thing.

Will Sorensen be a calm, collected presence on the sidelines this season? Or will he show the type of fire and emotion seen in the past from former 49ers defensive coordinators like Robert Saleh?

That too remains to be seen.

"I don't know yet. We'll see," Sorensen said.

Here's a rundown of some of the other topics Sorensen addressed at his media session.

Hufanga update

The hope among the 49ers is Talanoa Hufanga will be back with the 49ers in training camp. Sorensen told reporters Friday that Hufanga has been with the team during offseason workouts and is eager about making his return to the field.

"The main thing with him is he's got experience and he's a heck of a player," Sorensen said of Hufanga. "I mean, he's really, really good at communicating. He's smart, he sees things, has a full understanding of our system, and when he gets back, we're going to be excited.

"I know he's excited. He was out there on the field the other day -- we're in phase two (of offseason workouts) right now, so we're on the field doing a little bit of work with our players. And just talking to him, he's excited. So when he's ready, he'll be ready and we'll be excited to have him back."

What about the run defense?

Sorensen went into detail on several topics during his media session, but not on everything. When the subject came up of how the 49ers will fix the decrease in quality they saw on their run defense towards the end of the 2023 season, there wasn't much Sorensen was ready to offer.

"There's certain things we learned when we watched it and we're going to get it corrected," Sorensen said.

The turnover specialist

For the past two seasons, one of Sorensen's areas of focus has been improving the 49ers in the turnover department. There's been some notable success in that area under Sorensen's tenure, as the 49ers tied for second in the NFL in 2022 with 30 takeaways before tying for fourth in 2023 with 28 takeaways.

That success undoubtedly played a role in the decision to promote him to defensive coordinator.

"I did the same thing for (former Seahawks head coach) Pete Carroll in Seattle for four years. So when I came (to the 49ers), they kind of found out that I had done it in the past, and so I naturally went in here and did it.

"But it's just technique. It's more mindset than anything. You have to think about it and you have to train that thought, and then it becomes habit, whether it's attacking it or protecting it. And the main thing is, is that everybody's involved. If you're blocking, you have ball security for the guy who has the ball. If you're on defense and you're attacking it, whether you're the first man in, second man in, high point tips and overthrows, got to get those."

Nick Bosa relationship

Sorensen spoke for a few moments about defensive end Nick Bosa, who as usual is training away from the team before making an expected return for mandatory minicamp towards the end of the offseason workout program. In particular, Sorensen was asked about his relationship with Bosa, which he said is strong.

"Nick's great. I mean, you never have to question how he's working," Sorensen said. "We hope to get him here in a couple weeks, you know, for, you know, like he always comes back here towards the end. The relationship's great.

"I mean, he's one of the best in the league and he was defensive player of the year for a reason. I think a lot of the stuff that gets overlooked is how he plays in the run game. He's real physical. He's not just a guy that can get to the quarterback and affect it, which he does that at an elite level also."

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