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Robert Saleh talks pass rush issues, Ahkello Witherspoon development, more

The 49ers defensive coordinator met with the media after the first practice of training camp. We’ve got a full transcript, and you can watch video here.

Day one.

“Yeah. It was fun. Guys were excited, amped up, flying around. Looked like a lot of good effort. Lot of good intent. It was people competing. It’s always encouraging.”

A couple times, it almost seemed like they were itching to get the pads on where there was a little bit of contact but they had to hold back. Are you getting that sense a little bit?

“Oh, yeah. It’s still a contact sport so their first instinct is to go make collisions, but it’ll come on Saturday.”

It is CB Richard Sherman’s first day really kind of getting out there. How did he compare to the Richard Sherman you had in Seattle?

“He’s so in tune mentally. He was talking to me the entire practice, and [defensive backs coach Jeff] coach Hafley about the little indicators that our offense gives. Just little things here and there and just talking. But, he’s so into it mentally with regards to football. Athletically, looks the same. Looks great. Shoot, he’ll tell you he’s rusty but he’ll continue to work and continue to get better but we’re excited to have him and he’s really good for the room. I’m glad he’s here.”

Is that stuff that he relays to the offensive coaches? Do you talk to the offensive coaches about tells that Richard will pick up on?

“No. If we did an in-depth study, we’d all have little things here and there. So, Sherm’s always digging. He’s always digging to find the tell and that’s just the way he works. That’s his mind. This time of year with our offense, we’re so geared up. It’s about us on defense and fundamentals and preaching effort and attacking the ball and violence and all that. When it gets to game planning, we’ll talk more with scheme and all that. But Sherm, that’s what makes him special. He’s so locked in all the time because he’s so far ahead schematically and fundamentally that he could spend all his time working on offensive identification. That’s the challenge. That’s the cool thing about our system, for every player, once they get to a spot where they’re not thinking about their fundamentals and techniques. They’re not thinking of their job and the scheme. They’ve got to do something else and that something else is watching the offense and learning football, so that way you might have to abort mission and take a play away that the offense is trying to run.”

It seems that Richard is always advising a lot of the young guys around him. The same way he’s familiar with the offense, is he familiar with the skill set and the tape of a lot of the young DBs to kind of help them?

“He’s very observant. He is. I think coaching is in his future. Obviously not now. He’s still got a few years left, obviously. But he’s very in tune. He looks at the game like a coach and the difference is he still has the legs to be able to go do it.”

Yesterday, head coach Kyle Shanahan said LB Reuben Foster will be getting a lot of these first-team reps, considering that he is the starter this year. Being that he won’t be here for the first two games of the regular season, how do you guys approach that as far as getting other players to get those reps and be prepared for the first two weeks?

“As we get closer, we’ll address it. Right now, we’re making sure that everybody gets their work. There’s still 14 other games on the schedule and once we get closer, we’ll start to address the two games that he’s going to miss.”

It seemed like last year at this time you were trying to sort through whether DB Adrian Colbert was a corner or a safety. Obviously now, he’s kind of settled into that spot. How much growth did you see from him just in the offseason program as a guy who finally has a spot where he can settle in?

“Colbert, there’s a lot of young guys on this defense. The sky’s the limit for a lot of them. Colbert’s made of the right stuff and the right mindset where he’s not just a run and hit player. He’s trying to get to the level of great safeties where they’re always thinking about the game. They’re always thinking about offense. They’re really trying to figure out what the quarterback is trying to do to them. So, for him, he’s growing every day. It’s not going to stop growing either. Every day will be something new. Every day he’ll learn something new. For him, we’re very excited about the direction and the mindset that he’s got.”

Is there something about his mindset that kind of comes from that hard road that he traveled to get here and being a seventh-round pick, does he have that chip on his shoulder, so to speak?

“Every player has got a story. Every player has got a story that has kind of developed into a mindset. His road I can imagine that it could play a part in it and I’m sure it goes even deeper than that. Whatever has happened to him, he’s made of the right stuff and it’s done him very well.”

LB Brock Coyle had a nice pass breakup against TE George Kittle today. Do you feel like he is maybe an underrated player?

“Yeah, I do. I think Brock is underrated. He kind of flies under the radar. He’s very smart. Great technique, sound. He plays to his strengths and his strengths are good enough. But, I love Brock. The team loves Brock. He’s a guy that, he still has a chance to improve. Last year was his first five games of real action at MIKE linebacker. He’s got things that he can do to continue to improve. We appreciate Brock and what he has so he’s not underrated in this building. Maybe outside, but definitely here. He’s definitely appreciated.”

There were at least two instances where LB Fred Warner had good coverage. One was on WR Kendrick Bourne on a corner route and I saw you go over and congratulate him afterward. Another, he was covering TE Cole Hikutini. Where is he at in terms of the competition at linebacker? What opportunity is there for him, particularly with those first two weeks like you mentioned down the road?

“The message never changes. Even last year, the same discussions came up. The best 11 players are going to play. The best two linebackers are going to play Week 1 and 2. He’s involved just like [LB] Elijah Lee is, like [LB Mark] Nzeocha is, [LB] Malcolm [Smith], Brock, [LB Korey] Toomer, they’re all in the mix. [Inside linebackers coach] DeMeco Ryans is doing a great job of making sure that he’s giving them all of the reps that they need to make sure that they’re putting on good tape. Like I said, as we get closer to Week 1, we’ll start to address it.”

You put a lot on his plate in the offseason program. It’s just one practice, but it seems like he’s carrying it over pretty well. Are you happy with where he’s at just at this stage of the process?

“Yeah. I mean, he’s very smart. He’s got tremendous instincts and smarts. He’s probably been one of the smartest interviews that I’ve ever had from a linebacker spot. So, the issue is not him learning. It’s not whether or not he’s capable. It’s getting the pads on and going and making the play. I don’t doubt that that’s going to happen, so excited about where he is. But, he still has a long way to go, too.”

A lot of the guys have been talking about pass rushing as a unit more this year. How is that different than what you guys did last year? What do you see from that?

“Last year, it was still the same mindset. I put it on me. Everything we do on defense, there’s no gray area. Everyone has an exact job. Everyone knows everybody’s job on the defense. Our run fits are exact. Our coverage responsibilities are exact. When we got the pass rush, we could’ve done a lot better eliminating some of that gray area and really defining roles for everybody so that they can rush better as a unit. So, taking away that gray area so that they can rush as a unit. Really the overall goal is to disrupt the daylights out of the quarterback. That’s something that we’re working on. From a unit standpoint, it never changes. Throughout the NFL, you’re trying to rush as a unit. But, to eliminate that gray area so they can go as fast as humanly possible, that’s the goal that we’re trying to reach.”

What exactly do you mean?

“Tough one to answer, without getting into scheme. I’ll skip that one. I’ll talk to you about it later, though.”

You mentioned DeMeco earlier. What have you observed from him in his first year as a position coach? He’s got a young group, he’s a young guy. Do you feel the need to poke your head into the room and oversee it or do you just let him do his thing?

“You know what, he’s another one of those guys that’s very, very smart. Even when he was playing, he knew what everybody was doing on the football field. He’ll come in and ask questions, but he doesn’t need to be babysat. He’s got full control of the room and he’s doing a really good job. He leans on [run game specialist/outside linebackers coach] Johnny [Holland]. He leans on myself every once in a while. He doesn’t have to, but he does. He’s doing a really good job.”

What was your assessment of the pass rush today? Did anyone catch your eye?

“I’ve got to watch the tape. I’m always in the back with the secondary, yeah. It’s okay. I’m always in the secondary because we’re not in pads. We’re supposed to beat them up without pads on up front, so I’m just making sure that we’re sound in the back.”

How was Reuben today and what changes have you noticed since this time last year, particularly given that he was able to participate in the offseason program? He seems more healthy.

“So first, obviously, he’s very comfortable in the scheme. He looks lean. Looks quick, fast. He’s special. Everybody knows that. Again, it’s no different than anyone else. It’s still his second year and he still has three games to play before he’s not a rookie anymore. So he’s got a lot of stuff that he’s got to learn from a schematic standpoint and from a technique standpoint so that way his world can just become about offense and understanding what we’re trying to do in regards to run game, pass game and coverage responsibilities.”

Is it true his locker is next to Sherman’s?

“I don’t know. The last time I was in there was the last game of the year last year.”

Richard Sherman has been very complimentary of CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Can you talk a little bit about his growth from the beginning to now?

“Ahkello? When he got here, he was this little, scrawny corner that everyone said wouldn’t hit anybody. He’s turned into a man. If you look at him, he has great presence out on the football field. He’s a grown man. He’ll hit people. I couldn’t be more pleased, but the same thing, he’s got three games to go before he’s not a rookie anymore and he’s got a lot of stuff to learn. It’s going to be a constant theme. There’s a lot of young players on our team that have a lot of potential, but potential doesn’t mean anything unless you act on it. That goes with being deliberate in everything that they do. The great thing is, he’s got the mindset to approach every rep, whether it’s walk-through, practice, individual, it doesn’t matter. He’s working. He’s trying to get to a place, a place of greatness. He’s got a mindset that I wouldn’t bet against him.”

Did you see that potential in him?

“I think we all did. [General manager] John [Lynch], Kyle, [vice president of player personnel] Adam [Peters], [senior personnel executive] Martin Mayhew. They all saw it. They wouldn’t have drafted him if they didn’t. There’s a lot of studying that went into Ahkello. When you use a third-round pick on somebody, you have great confidence, obviously. We never had a doubt.”

It’s funny that you said Ahkello has changed as a player, but the first time we saw him in the offseason program when he was doing an interview with the media, it seemed like he was a different guy. He wasn’t a rookie anymore. The confidence was there. I’m wondering if his persona has adopted a more confident persona in meeting rooms, as well?

“Confidence comes with belief. He has great confidence because he’s gone out and he’s done it and he’s had success. He is, he’s completely morphed into this grown man that’s got great confidence. He’s in a great spot right now mentally and I’m excited to see where he goes.”

There’s these young DBs now. You have a whole new crop in here. I’m wondering, how much do they learn as far as the playbook goes in the offseason program? How much is this first part of training camp going to be dedicated to getting them up to speed so they can play fast?

“So, for us, it’s about repetition. It takes 10,000 hours to get good at something. We start from square one every time. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been in the system. I’m sure it was boring for Sherm, but I’m sure he picked something up. We always start from square one and then go from there.”

Ahkello Witherspoon wasn’t tested a whole lot last year. Playing opposite Richard Sherman, he could get tested a lot this year. What kind of an adjustment is that for a young cornerback?

“I think he’ll hold his own. Not really worried about that. Whether teams throw away from Sherm or what, it doesn’t change what we do schematically. I’m pretty confident that Spoon’s going to be able to hold up.”

How was the process of getting the team ready for the season? What has been the mental preparation for this part here?

“For us in the second year, the message doesn’t change. We’ve got a style of play that we’re trying to achieve with attacking the ball, extreme violence, playing with all gas and no brake. The fundamentals and the techniques and the standard that which we’re trying to get our guys to operate, that doesn’t change. They’re owning the scheme and mastering their responsibility, that doesn’t change. So, none of that really changes. The challenge is for players now to take it and make it theirs here in the second year. When they make it, they’ll just grow and just get faster.”