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How 49ers DB Deommodore Lenoir went from Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse to a top nickel corner

The 49ers cornerback has taken a big step up as a starter in 2023.

NFL: Super Bowl LVIII San Francisco 49ers Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are set to face off against the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of their Super Bowl four years ago this weekend, looking to avenge their loss and earn the franchise’s first ring since 1994.

While much of the team looks different than the 2019 team that turned things around to make a Super Bowl appearance, several key pieces remain across the board, including wideout Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, defensive end Nick Bosa, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, and linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.

One room that has fully revamped, however, is the secondary, as all five of San Francisco’s starters have changed from four years ago, when Richard Sherman, K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley, Jimmie Ward, and Jaquiski Tartt led the way.

Looking to improve a weakened room two years ago, the 49ers made significant changes, signing Charvarius Ward to a three-year contract, while drafting cornerbacks Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas.

Fast-forward to 2023 and those three make up the 49ers’ starters at cornerback, while Tashaun Gipson and Ji’Ayir Brown round out the secondary at safety.

Ward, signed to a three-year, $42 million deal, has blossomed into one of the league’s top cornerbacks, being named to the All-Pro second-team.

Lenoir, on the other hand, dealt with a position change and still found a way to succeed after moving from the boundary to the inside, where he’s served as the team’s top nickelback.

However, it hasn’t always been pretty for Lenoir, who went from an early starter as a rookie to the bottom of the cornerback rotation before building his way back up.

How did Lenoir get himself back on track?

“Two years ago, like my rookie year, I was like in the dog house, or you know, the Shanahan dog house,” Lenoir shared. “And so, yeah, I was there. and I just did some, you know, rethinking, after that season. My rookie year didn’t go as planned, as I planned for myself, like my expectations and stuff.”

“I didn’t meet my requirements. So I just did a little recap on myself, then came out that next year, just with like a chip on my shoulder again. And then, and then it was, and now I’m here.”

Fast-forward to last year’s training camp and Lenoir begun to impress as a potential starter for the team, jumping fellow cornerback Ambry Thomas. Still, there were some bumps in the road for the corner, which led to an honest conversation between him and head coach Kyle Shanahan.

“[In last year’s training camp], it was a busted coverage and like I was not pursuant to the ball [on a play],” Lenoir said. “So yeah, when that had happened, [Shanahan] was just like, ‘you got that dog in you like I know you show at certain times. But, if it gets [to be] more consistent, you could be a good player in this league. So then, just after that, the leash was off.”

Last season, Lenoir developed into an outside-predominant cornerback as Jimmie Ward took over in the slot, improving as the season went along.

However, the 49ers made another switch this past season, moving Lenoir between the outside and the nickel spot after Isaiah Oliver struggled to begin the year, with the 2021 fifth-rounder eventually sticking on the inside after Ambry Thomas became a full-time starter.

Just like that, Lenoir had to learn a new position and the intricacies that came with the slot role, but decided to be a team player and let his competitive nature take over.

“[Moving to the slot] was what’s better for the team,” Lenoir said. “Because I’m a team player at first, I would say. And when it was up for a discussion, I mean, to help the team out, it was a no-brainer. I’ve always been a competitor, so I just guess my competitive nature just took over. And really, it wasn’t that big of a difference as far as covering and stuff. It was just more like, you got to know the places on the field and the timing of the throws and just reading your run gaps and run keys.”

While the coverage element wasn’t much different, reading between a run and pass became a crucial part of the learning curve for Lenoir, who now had to focus harder in the run game with more responsibilities.

“[The biggest transition was] reading run/pass, I would say,” Lenoir shared about moving to the nickel. “Like at first, I was always, like I wouldn’t say guessing, but like not really locking into the run game. I was more always worried about the pass because I guess it was like me just learning the defense probably but that was the biggest difference like run/pass.”

“I’m the person, whatever they ask me to do, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability. And I’m just happy they just trusted in me to be able to work inside and out. I knew it was something that I had to get used to cause you gotta read the run, you gotta read the pass, you gotta kind of read the receiver’s body language to know when the run or pass is coming. So, it was just kind of more on me, like just picking it up fast. Like I had to just like, you know, just find little keys and just really lock in to really excel at the position.”

Now, Lenoir has developed into one of the team’s better run defenders, which has exerted itself, especially in the playoffs, helping a struggling 49ers’ run defense.

Additionally, the added responsibilities in the run game have prompted Lenoir to play with more physicality, which he’ll look to embrace this weekend.

“I feel like I’m a totally different player,” Lenoir said about himself this season. “You know, I feel like I’ve grown so much and my knowledge of the game. And I don’t even think I was that physical versus them (the Chiefs) last year. I felt like I did myself a [disservice] by like not even being physical how like I am, but like Sunday, [it’s on].”