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Robert Kupbens-USA TODAY Sports


49ers coordinator Nick Sorensen talks defense

May 10, 2024 at 2:13 PM


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San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen spoke to reporters during the team's rookie minicamp. Here is everything he had to say.

Transcript provided by the San Francisco 49ers Communications staff.

Opening comments:

"Good to see you guys. I'm excited. Go ahead, you can ask questions. We just got out of walk-through with our rookies. It's pretty cool to have those guys here."

When an offense takes a look at your defense, early in the season, what do you want them to see? What is going to be the identity of your defense?

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

So far, what has been the biggest adjustment to your new role?

"For me, it's just now you're in charge of things. You have to plan your days differently. You have to plan it out for the rest of the staff. You're more involved with the Draft, which was cool. Overall, you're not just a certain position. So that's been fun."

Is your staff intact now? I know you were looking for a defensive line assistant, maybe some other spots. Is everybody here at this point?

"Yeah, the staff is great. That's the one thing that's been really beneficial to me, is knowing the guys and having a staff that we have right now, that's also been here for a while. I'm already familiar with them. They know how we play, they understand our defense. They understand if we need to change certain things. Not so much as shifting what we do, but just evolving, like how the league evolves, as quick as it does in one year or one week or two weeks. And then also adding [defensive coach] Brandon Staley, which has been awesome for me. He has experience as a coordinator, he has experience as a head coach, so he sees things holistically. He knows how to build plans. Just getting him in here and spending extra hours just talking football with him, he's very bright and is really a humble guy who is smart and knows football. That's been really awesome and helpful for me."

How would you explain his role? What will he be doing throughout the offseason? When the season begins, what will he be doing?

"Really just how I said it, it's more holistic. He's been helping me overall. He's been involved with pretty much everything, as far as, 'here is where we did this' and I've been kind of talking him through how we play certain things, watching things throughout the League and what other teams do. Some of the things that he did, asking would this fit or would it not fit in our defense? And some things I was already 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 defensive 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. So, like I said, it's been great."

You're a first-time coordinator. What is it that you think got you this job?

"I think you'd have to ask [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and [president of football operations and general manager] John [Lynch] and ownership. I was here, I understand the defense, familiarity with it, with the guys and how we play, what's expected. I think we all know what we expect out of the defense and our team. So you'd probably have to ask Kyle about that."

Kyle has alluded to upon hiring you getting back to what you guys have been in the past, where maybe it had veered off a little bit last year specifically. Where did things maybe go away from that last year and how do you get things back to that?

"It's just the details of what we've done in the past with just our coverages and how we play them. That's it."

If you look at the roster, most of the personnel turnover, I have to guess is defensive line. A lot of guys have left, brought a bunch of replacements in. How is that front possibly changing? Like is there certain things you want to do to make it a little bit more unpredictable or just different style of guys on the interior too?

"You know, pro sports, the NFL, it's tough. There's changes all the time, whether it's coaching or players. And we were fortunate to have a lot of these guys like [Jacksonville Jaguars DL] Arik [Armstead] for a long time and he did a lot of great things for us. But we did replace him and [New York Jets DL Javon Kinlaw] J.K. and some of the guys that we had last year with some guys that were really excited about. I mean, [DL Leonard] Floyd and [DL] Maliek [Collins] inside and then getting [DL] Jordan Elliot as well, [DL] 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 we had gotten the guys that it was kind of one year and gone and it's someone that can get in our system with [defensive line coach Kris] Kocurek and really just be aggressive and attack. As far as changing things, we're going to be aggressive, we're going to do what we do and be an attacking defense."

This defense has had a straightforward four-man pass rush for a very long time. Are you looking to sort of add a little bit to that schematically in terms of simulated pressures or whatever?

"Well, we always are looking to evolve in certain ways. I think there's things throughout the league that you see and it's like, will this work? Will it not? But as far as what we do, our bread and butter, we're going to do that."

Does your relationship with head coach Kyle Shanahan naturally change when you go into this position. Obviously, we know Kyle gets involved in a lot of things. What was your relationship just kind of coaching-wise with Kyle and is it a little different now?

"Yeah, now I'm more connected with him. We talk a lot more. You have to, I mean, he's very busy being the head coach and running the offense and stuff. I think now you have a little bit more free time. It's been cool, especially with what we've done with the Draft, having just going through the Draft and kind of talking through even before that with free agency, like what our team looks like and what we need it to look like and who we want to target. So, in that respect, it was a lot more connected with him."

We met S Malik Mustapha for the first time yesterday and what struck me was that he's built almost like a linebacker, obviously on tape he played safety really well and he talked about that panther position that he played at Wake Forest. When you look at that versatility, is that something that you envision him being able to do for your defense as well?

"I just think with safeties today and defensive backs today, you need to be versatile. Even linebackers, 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. So, we like when guys have the versatility, but we also just loved his play style. Even with [CB] Renardo Green, it's how he played. And even with [LB] Tatum Bethune, 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."

What learning lessons do you take away from last year now in your new role?

"Well, I think you learn every year. I think for me it's more just getting prepared for the season and getting our players prepared and our staff and everyone prepared that we're playing and presenting it to our players with one voice and we're doing it all with the same direction. And that, again, like I said, speed, violence and finish is what I want it to look like."

When your name has come up over the past year or so it's been in relation to the ball, you know, emphasis on taking away the football. How did that role come about? And I mean, it seems kind of obvious you want to take the ball away, you want to keep the ball on offense. How did that come about and what is your emphasis when it comes to generating takeaways?

"Yeah, taking it and it was also about protecting it to our offense and, and special teams involved in that too. Kyle does the meetings on Thursday for the team. They're always, you know, different people have done it in the past here. And when I first got here, I did it the same thing for [former Seattle Seahawks head coach] Pete Carroll in Seattle for four years. So, when I came and 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, you know, 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. You guys don't know that? Okay."

Along with former Pete Carroll, who else has influenced you and your coaching career?

"There's been a lot, probably too many to name. I mean, I played for a lot of really good coaches like [former Virginia Tech head coach] Frank Beamer in college and [former Virginia Tech defensive coordinator] Bud Foster was our defensive coordinator and going through the 10 years playing, a lot of really good coaches."

What do you do over the offseason and just evaluating offensive trends and maybe how you want to combat those or do you do that work?

"That's something we mix in throughout our days. Like when the season first ends, we kind of split your day with evaluating the free agents, the pro free agents and evaluating ourselves. And then after that it turns into the draft while you're still doing that. And then you start to do little projects that are evaluating what's happening in the League. And we give those sections to different coaches and we're continually watching it. And always, like I said, you try and learn, you try to evolve because you want to win games."

Speaking of that self-evaluation, the run defense did slide last year relative to the years before. Is there anything in particular that you guys are looking at philosophically this year at to right the course in that regard?

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

Last year you guys drafted LB Dee Winters and LB Jalen Graham and they looked really good in the preseason. They didn't play a lot as the season went on. How do you evaluate their rookie year? And with LB Dre Greenlaw out, do you expect those guys to contend for that starting spot opposite of LB Fred Warner?

"We always want it to be competitive. We've got the [LB] DeVondre Campbell, another really good sign for us. 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, you kind of move in. So sometimes, you know, with him it's just making that transition. And then Dee, Dee has come a long way too now. 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 want to see them compete once we get to these next couple weeks and then into training camp."

When you mentioned Brandon Staley saying I've used this before here, are there situations where you're like, well maybe like, let's see, we got to see on the field and it won't be known maybe until during camp. I mean, might you try to just kind of try stuff and see what works?

"We did that a lot in, I mean that's football. You know, you try something and it may not work. And I'm not saying that with this, but we had that plenty of times in Seattle, a couple times in Seattle as well where we might be evaluating something and Pete would say, 'hey, maybe we need to try this,' and you might spend a practice or two in the offseason and try and iron it out and see if you want to use it. And you may or may not. It just depends on, for me it's is it going to slow the players down? You don't want that, not the way our players play. So, if it can fit our system and our players can still play fast and it gives us a competitive advantage, I think everything is geared towards can it help us win games and play good defense."

You've had experience working with linebackers, defensive backs, what's your relationship with DL Nick Bosa and what do you have to do to maximize what you can get out of him?

"Nick is great. I mean, you never have to question how he's working. We hope to get him here in a couple weeks, he always comes back here towards the end. And the relationship's great. I mean, he's one of the best in the league and he was, you know, 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 is not just a guy that can get to the quarterback and affect it, which he does that at an elite level also."

What did the defense lose when S Talanoa Hufanga went down last season and what is it gaining when he comes back?

"Main thing with him is he's got experience and he is a heck of a player. 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 is excited. He was out there on the field the other day at our, we're in phase two 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."

This is obviously your first podium moment. You're going to have many more. People are now looking at you on how this defense is going to run. You know, there's been, you know, a lot of, a few defensive coordinators through here last few years for promotions or otherwise. Have you had a brace for this? Just the public-facing part of this? People are going to be watching you on the sideline. People might be mad if the defense doesn't play great, they might love it when the defense plays tremendously. Are you ready for this?

"Yeah, I'm excited. Like I said before, for me it's, 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, 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 then 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."

Where will you call plays on game day and why?

"Yeah, I'll be on the field."

What do you prefer about it?

"I like being on the field. 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."

What's your style? Is it like a New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh, Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans kind on the sidelines? How are you on the sidelines now that you're in charge?

"I don't know yet. We'll see."
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