Darrell Luter Jr. is one of the more intriguing prospects the 49ers selected in the 2023 NFL draft. He burst on to the scene with a strong showing at this year’s Senior Bowl before hearing his name called in the fifth round after being selected by San Francisco.
Coming from a smaller school at South Alabama, many people haven’t had a chance to see the kind of impact that Luter Jr. had on the Jaguars' week in and week out en route to earning First-Team All-Sun Belt honors in 2022.
To get a better gauge on the kind of player he is, and how he projects to fit into a very talented 49ers defense, I had the pleasure of speaking with Coach Corey Batoon, who is the defensive coordinator and safeties coach at South Alabama.
Coach Batoon went into detail explaining how Luter Jr.’s relentless attention to detail as well as his familiarity with the scheme he will have to adapt to in San Francisco has him in a position to find success very early on with the 49ers.
To start, I asked Coach Batoon to share what stood out the most to him during his time coaching Luter Jr. at South Alabama:
“The biggest think you take away from him is he is such a detail guy, he really latches on to everything that you tell him. You hear the cliche, student of the game, gym rat, watching tape and you hear all those stories, and he is certainly very similar to all those stories.
He is always in the building watching tape, studying, when we got here he had just come off his sophomore year, he was a junior college product and was here during the covid year, so that kind of bought him a free year if you will, We got here with the new staff in 2021, had a solid spring, new techniques, new system, new scheme that he wasn’t real familiar with.
So going through that spring you could see some of the potential, but really him in the offseason really diving into the film study, getting a feel for things, and being comfortable in the system, and more so the techniques that we use. The techniques that we use are very different, our press technique is an NFL model and it fits the coverage scheme.”
Coach Batoon then explained how this is not the first time that a player he coached would be in a favorable position as they made the transition into the 49ers scheme:
“I think the biggest thing you see out of him is that he is a system fit for the 49ers. They are running a lot of the read thirds coverage that we run. I have another former player, Azeez [Al-Shaair] played for me at FAU and he is another guy who plugs in and plays because it’s the same coverage system, a lot of the same terminology, a lot of the same packaging.
Thats where I see a lot of the benefit with Lute, he’s going to be going into there and our base coverages are the Niners base coverages, so when they see him using the techniques, when they see him with his eye progressions and his reads, they’re looking at the same things that they are teaching. I think thats where when all things are equal, you take a guy who has played in that system for two years I think it helps hedge your bet a little bit.”
Coach Batoon then touched on why attention to detail is something that cannot go unsaid when evaluating the kind of player that Luter Jr. was during his time coaching him at South Alabama:
“Getting back to Lute I think he’s such a detail oriented guy, really saw the growth coming out of spring ball over the course of the summer. Had a phenomenal junior year, people were actually throwing the ball at him, then because of that junior year he didn’t get much action his senior year, people basically just threw to the middle of the field or to the field, while we had Lute to the boundary.
Not a lot of action as a senior, which if you look at his stats from his junior to senior year you’d say there is not as much production, but hell he never got the ball thrown to him as a senior. Just a very consistent, detail oriented type of guy.”
I then asked Coach Batoon what kind of role he envisions for Luter Jr. at the next level that would put him in the best position to succeed given his skill set:
“I would see him more on the outside, he certainly has the skillset to play in the slot but I think he’s going to be more comfortable on the outside. Just based on their depth and where they see him playing, I think he has the athleticism to play in the slot. We brought him on some pressures so he’s not afraid to get in the run fit some to where those slot corners need to be able to do some of those things.”
Given the scheme familiarity that Coach Batoon had mentioned, I asked him to go a bit more in detail to explain what exactly Luter Jr. was doing at South Alabama that will translate to what will be asked of him as a member of the 49ers secondary:
“The 49ers base press technique, thats what we use. We use the same technique, we are not an inch back team, we are a kick slide, step replace, pierce step team. So he’s been taught the same stuff he is going to be taught there. I think because of that when you watch tape and you go okay this is the same stuff that we are teaching our guys.
Obviously they are going to teach it differently and have a little bit of a flair but he’s very comfortable using the base techniques the 49ers use at the corner position. I think he’s got tremendous confidence in being able to do that technique, and then from an eye progression standpoint he is going to understand the concepts that they’re talking about.
So I think the transition should be a lot less than it would be for a guy thats coming from a cover 2 or a cover 4 type scheme that hasn’t been able to play the eye progressions the way that we do and the same way that the Niners do.”
We then talked a bit about practice habits that Luter Jr. displayed during his time at South Alabama. Coach Batoon pointed out how consistent reps in practice against an NFL caliber wide receiver played a major role in Luter Jr.’s growth as a player, as well as touching on the competitive fire he brought to the field day in and day out:
“It’s so competitive, you want it to be competitive, we do a lot of good on good. We have had a tradition of really good receivers here, like Jalen Tolbert the kid thats playing for the Cowboys.
Lute covered Jalen all through last year because Jalen played the boundary X position and Luter played the boundary, so every day he’s going against a guy who was taken in the third round, really good player. Was matched up against some of the best receivers in our league, so that competitiveness that you see day in and day out, sometimes you kind of cringe mid week and say hey let’s back these guys off and make sure we get them to Saturday.”
While on the topic of practice and the work that goes in behind the scenes, I asked Coach Batoon to share his thoughts on the way that Luter Jr. prepared for opponents week in and week out, and how involved was he in studying the game plan:
“I think he does a really good job of understanding strengths and weaknesses in regards to release patterns with the receivers. We make a cut up every week and because we play so much press, its really easy to get a feel for the kind of set ups and the type of releases that each individual receiver likes, and I thought he did a really nice job week to week studying his opponent, understanding particular releases, particular tips and clues that we would give him in regards to splits which allowed him to anticipate and play a little bit more reactionary. I think he’s always been really good about that. He sees the value in film study, those are traits and qualities that I think are only going to continue to get stronger as he gets to the next level.”
While Luter Jr. brings a tremendous amount of talent and potential to the 49ers, he, like any other player, can always improve in a given area. I asked Coach Batoon what facet of his game that he thought Luter Jr. could improve on the most as he makes the transition into the NFL:
“Just because of how we used him, we didn’t ask him to play much off [coverage]. The college game is so different with the hashmarks being different, so we played him into the boundary. A lot of the type of releases that he saw was based on the shorter end of the field and so I know in the NFL with the hash marks being closer, everything is kind of middle of the field.
I think the biggest thing that he probably needs to get exposed to is a little bit more off coverage. We never asked him to do that, he would play some bail from his press, but not much off because we were always up in their face challenging people on the boundary. I think there’s room for growth there, just because I think that is going to be newer to him. I’m sure he will be really good at it once he gets familiar with it, but those are things we never asked him to do because of the position he played.”
To finish our conversation, I asked Coach Batoon what he would tell another coach what kind of player they were getting with Luter Jr. Not only did he shine light on Luter Jr.’s ability to erase opposing receiving options, he also concluded by mentioning that he thinks his transition to getting comfortable in the 49ers system is something that should develop quickly:
“You’re going to get a press corner that can eliminate a receiver. For us thats kind of how we played, we played 10 on 10 because had Lute on the boundary and we didn’t have to deal with the X receiver, the boundary receiver. He has the ability to take somebody off the board and challenge all throws. Very strong hands, very comfortable in his ability to change directions, and I think he has tremendous ball skills which you saw a lot in his junior year, but in his senior year people just didn’t throw it over there anymore. I think he’s got the skill set that will transition because he’s got the background in the 49ers system. I see his transition time being relatively short.”