Every year since Kris Kocurek joined the 49ers staff in 2019, there has been a player who has a career revitalization of sorts on the 49ers’ defensive line. From Kerry Hyder Jr. to Arden Key, it’s become an annual tradition to have a player sign on a cheap one-year deal, have a breakout season with the 49ers, and then cash out in free agency the following offseason.
The next in line for the Kocurek career revitalization project? Kemoko Turay, who signed with the 49ers this past offseason after four years with the Indianapolis Colts.
Turay is a freak of nature kind of athlete, possessing physical traits that place him among the elite at his position. Standing at 6’5 245 pounds, Turay has a blend of size and speed that make him a nightmare for opposing offensive lines to deal with when he comes flying off the edge.
To give you a sense of just how gifted of an athlete Turay is, let me provide some insight into his introduction to the sport of football. Turay did not play organized football until his senior year in high school. In his first year ever playing the sport, Turay racked up 19 sacks, which led the entire state.
Turay’s story is quite fascinating, and to help tell it, I had the pleasure of speaking with coach Ashley Pierre, better known by those close to him as coach “Smoke.” Coach Smoke was the first football coach that Turay ever had before growing into a mentorship role maintained to this very day that Smoke described as an “uncle or a big brother.”
Turay was born in Conakry, the capital city of the West African country of Guinea. When he was six years old, Turay came to the United States, and his family settled in the Newark, New Jersey area, where he attended Barringer High School, where Smoke served as the defensive coordinator.
During the early years of high school, Turay was a basketball player and competed in track and field when coach Smoke and the staff at Barringer made a recruiting pitch to have him play football for their program, despite having no experience playing the sport at an organized level.
He was exclusively a track guy and basketball guy, he used to triple jump and long jump. He just wanted to be a basketball player, and we kind of went and got him. His father was a tailor, he used to do my dad’s clothes and stuff, and we actually went up there to the tailor and asked his dad “can he play?”. And the rest was kind of history. His father was kind of hesitant of course, you know him being a foreigner, being from Africa didn’t really want his son getting hurt like that. Wound up once we got the green light for him to play, we made the best out of it, invested a lot of time in him, just teaching him the sport because he was so new to it. He led the state in sacks that year, and he’s a guy that never shied away from work, he’s gifted man. We had a special team that year, but Kemoko, we saw the writing on the wall as he started putting in that work, and he was just a grinder.
I was fascinated to learn that Turay recorded that kind of production in his first year ever playing football at an organized level. I asked coach Smoke if he remembered what Turay’s practices were like the first few times he put on a helmet and shoulder pads and took to the gridiron.
Oh, it was rough, he had no clue. He was jumping offsides, didn’t know what defense was, what offense was, was trying to figure out positions. He thought he wanted to play wide receiver, so he was oblivious to what he was going to become. We knew he was going to play defensive end the whole entire time, and we kind of told him this is where you need to focus at, and you know he would go full speed at practice to a point where the quarterback would have a red jersey on, and he would just go full speed.
Didn’t know he was supposed to stop at the quarterback, would just hit quarterbacks, like tear up whatever, if we were doing offensive practice and we were trying to get some stuff off of a walkthrough, Kemoko was always that guy that was going 100 miles an hour, not knowing that’s not what’s supposed to be done during this period. He loved chasing the football, the running back could be 20 yards downfield and kemoko from day one would chase that guy because he had that passion to say “I want to go catch him”. That’s what was special, we just had to teach him angles and teach him leverage, and hand work and things like that. He bought into it and he enjoyed the process, and that’s why he is where he is now.
A player with exceptional physical traits and a relentless motor sounds like a tailor-made fit for Kocurek and the aggressive scheme the 49ers’ front four deploys. As we continued our conversation, I asked coach Smoke if there was a specific intangible that Turay possessed that stood out beyond just the raw athleticism.
The biggest thing when you cut the film on, the motor, you watch he’s always running to the ball. And it sounds cliche, because even at the high school level or the college level, like you tell guys run to the ball, but he does it in a fashion where it’s relentless. That’s the biggest intangible, outside of his ability to rush the passer and beat offensive linemen one on one. I think that’s god’s gift. Just speaking to NFL personnel, being around the game, me coaching the guys that i’ve coached, having guys in the league, what separates him is he runs with a purpose to the football. And it doesn’t matter where the ball is, Kemoko enjoys running like a bat out of hell, he’s not going to stop until he gets the ball. It’s also the will to do it. The great athlete’s that we’ve coached, they all understand it, but it takes some will to say “I’m not going to stop until I get to this guy”.
During the 49ers preseason opener vs. Green Bay, Turay displayed this relentless pursuit coach Smoke mentioned. Watch this rep, and the backside pursuit from Turay into the second level, coming all the way from the strong side on a toss to the weak side of the field.
Talanoa Hufanga lowers his shoulder & lays a big hit on Packers running back Tyler Goodson— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) August 13, 2022
Another thing that stood out on this play was the backside pursuit from Kemoko Turay working all the way across the field from the strong side
Turay’s athletic traits jump off the screen pic.twitter.com/DFGgKK7Env
An athlete that size, coming across the field from the backside shouldn’t be able to make a play like this on the ball carrier on a toss to the play side.
Our conversation shifted towards the present, and I asked coach Smoke to expand a bit on what made the 49ers such an appealing option for Turay during this past offseason when he inked
He spoke highly of Kocurek, we did our homework on Kris during that free agency piece of it, we spoke heavily on wanting to be around a coach that was able to develop, and he understood that he needed that. So our conversations were just kind of about getting in with the right coach and the right program. We love Shanahan, and just being able to see what the defensive line play looked like over the years with Kris, it was like man this is a place he needs to go.
You talk about reviving a career, and he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder right now, He took the one year deal, he wanted to go somewhere were he could develop, and more importantly break out. And I think that’s why we decided to go to San Francisco and be under Kris and Kyle. Being around a winning program is what helps individuals thrive. I think under Shanahan he can thrive and become the best Kemoko he can be.
We talked about the energy Kocurek brings every single day, and coach Smoke made it a point to say that Turay thrives with that style of coaching and that he and Turay have spoken recently about how beneficial Kocurek’s coaching style has been for his own development.
Kemoko said he reminds him of us, and I think he appreciates that, his energy, and he’s on him and he’s coaching him. Kemoko does well with that type of coaching, even our conversations on facetime he says “Smoke he reminds me of y’all, his energy is up, he’s running around, he’s developing, he’s coaching”. Kemoko is the type of player that needs that, and I think that drives him to want to be great.
We also talked a bit more about Turay’s outlook this year after signing what is essentially a prove-it deal, agreeing to terms at one year for 1.7 million dollars.
They got him for cheap man, and they got a dude. And I know Kemoko knows that too. We all kind of talk about it, it fuels Kemoko too, it’s one of those deals where you dictate what it looks like after. You could rip this thing up once you do what you need to do. Like I said, I think it’s a great place for him.
Turay is trending in the right direction as he enters his tenure with the 49ers, coming off a season that saw him post 22 pressures and 5.5 sacks on 173 pass-rushing opportunities. The explosive athletic traits flashed immediately in Turay’s first preseason game with the 49ers, where he consistently made plays off the edge like this.
While things are trending up now, it had been a rough couple of years for Turay coming off of back-to-back seasons where he underwent surgery to repair an injured ankle. Coach Smoke shared that Turay stayed with him at his house during the offseason, and I asked coach what some of their discussions were like about Turay’s goals going into this season with the 49ers.
We talked about getting the 12+ sacks that he wanted to get. More importantly the recovery piece of it, was trying to get back to his old self and that Kemoko that was extremely locked in, that was focused, that was able to witness an enormous amount of productivity is what we kind of wanted to get back to. I think we harped about the mental aspect, the physical aspect of it, and him kind of just having to do a lot of work on himself. During this offseason, nights of him sleeping at my house we spent a lot of conversations trying to do that.
A lot of our focus was just on getting back to the Kemoko Turay that was legendary, that got the 19 sacks, that was All-BIG 10, that was able to get himself drafted in the second round. I think he spent a lot of time doing that, I think that’s whats playing a big part of his success right now.
I was also interested to hear coach Smoke’s thoughts about how Turay has looked and felt this past offseason compared to last after being over a year removed from ankle surgery he underwent in April of 2021.
He spent a lot of time rehabbing, he comes from a muslim background, so a lot of prayer, a lot of digging into his faith. on a football aspect, a lot of film watching. He studied himself a lot during the time away from football. He spent a lot of time with Robert Mathis down in Indianapolis, even though he didn’t have his legs, he did a lot of handwork and things like that. So that was like his private coaching he was taking advantage of while he was hurt.
Then when he was coming home, he was just spending time in therapy, and just finding places that he can get great work in. He traveled to Georgia and got some work in, but a lot of times were with Robert Mathis and just getting work in, and just trying to perfect the craft and make sure when his leg did get better he can make plays.
At the first opportunity at game action with the 49ers, Turay showed that he was in fact ready to make plays. Like this rep, where he fires through the C gap and sheds a block while working laterally to stuff this rushing attempt in the backfield for a loss.
Green Bay tried blocking Kemoko Turay with a tight end on this rushing attempt on 3rd & 2— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) August 14, 2022
Turay sheds this block as he fires through the C gap to stuff Tyler Goodson in the backfield got a loss pic.twitter.com/cCurxDn5MK
As impressed as I have been with his athleticism and relentless motor, that is only half of the equation when talking about making plays at the NFL level. You need to take the proper angles and know where to direct that unbridled energy.
The technique Turay plays with is as encouraging as the explosive athleticism. Like this play, for example, where Turay is going to set the edge on the play side on a toss to the strong side. Turay setting the edge forces this run back to the inside where the 49ers defense has a numbers advantage, and as a result, limits the carry to a short gain.
Green Bay runs a toss to the outside, and Kemoko Turay (#53) does a fantastic job of setting the edge, while Samuel Womack (#26) explodes into his run fit in the D gap— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) August 14, 2022
This forces the RB back inside for a minimal gain pic.twitter.com/deXtMNVkIv
As always, I wanted to emphasize the human side of things and help give 49ers fans an idea of who Turay is as much as who he is as a football player. So I asked coach Smoke how he would summarize Kemoko Turay as a person to 49ers fans that are hoping to familiarize themselves with a player poised to have a significant impact on the team’s 2022 season.
Respectful, determined, disciplined, hard working, and when it comes to being an athlete he’s hungry. He wants to be great, he’s fighting every day to be great. He’s not going through a rep half speed, he wants to go 100 miles an hour to be great. So I think those words right there kind of define who he is holistically.
I also asked coach Smoke to talk a bit about what Turay was like around his teammates and how he was as a leader.
Kemoko has always been a serious kind of guy, he really doesn’t joke as often once he’s on the field. He loves to help people get better. He takes coaching well, he listens well, he asks questions, but as a person he wants to pull the next person up to get him better. Whether that’s the freshman, or the sophomore, or the junior, he did a great job wanting the next guy to be a better football player. So leadership wise, he wants to be great and he wants everybody else to be good.
I watched Turay record five sacks during a single practice during the 11 on 11 periods at training camp this year. Day after day, he dominated his one-on-one reps, showcasing a deep arsenal of pass-rushing moves and an exceptionally effective bend around the edge.
Turay is a big-time player with big-time traits, and both Turay and the 49ers have an opportunity to form a perfect marriage. One that allows Turay to reestablish his value and remind the league what he is capable of, while the 49ers get to cash in the year of production on an extremely team-friendly deal.