Well, Trent Baalke and the 49ers have done it again…

In the this year’s NFL Draft, they managed to pull two draft picks out of their sleeve that no one saw coming.  This was not much unlike the 2011 draft when  Baalke and then first year NFL head coach, Jim Harbaugh, put their heads together to find two key pieces in building a foundation for the 49ers defense in years to come: Aldon Smith and Chris Culliver.

Both players paid dividends in their first season.  Smith’s efforts (14 sacks) won him NFL Rookie of the Year award and Culliver developed into the teams nickel cornerback and a valuable contributor for one of the league’s top special teams units.  Coach and General Manager have earned instant credibility with their ability to evaluate and select players that will have a lasting future on their roster.

This year they decided to go on the offensive with their first two selections.

With the 3oth overall pick in the 2012 draft, they selected wide receiver AJ Jenkins from the University of Illinois.  Like many others, I was rooting for the Niners to pick Coby Fleener, a versatile 6’6″ tigt end from Harbaugh’s last coaching stop, Stanford University.  When I heard the name AJ Jenkins, my response was, “who?”

But, after watching some game film on Jenkins, I can see that he is a vertical threat, has excellent hands, and he is involved in all levels of the passing game.  He catches the ball on all types of routes including the post, fade, slant, shallow cross, deep out and corner.  He also lines up in multiple positions, in the slot, on and off the ball and is deployed in motion to take advantage of his speed.

Watch the clips of his Big Ten game against Northwestern and see what Harbaugh was talking about when he described Jenkins as being “very versatile … we probably would start him out at one position and teach him that. Then we’ll transition with him. He’s a very smart guy, very bright guy. I don’t think it will be a problem for him to pick up and learn multiple positions.”

If you are intrigued and you want to see more of Jenkins and the versatility he will bring to the 49er offense, watch his highlight reel.  Some people [bloggers] have compared him to New York Giants all-pro wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks.  And, upon closer review, Jenkins’ long arms and great catch range make that a fair comparison.

In the 2nd round, the 49ers stayed with the theme of speed and added Pac-12 standout running back LaMichael James with the 61st overall pick.  When asked about LaMichael James’ ability to fit into the 49ers, there were a number of areas that Harbaugh felt his second round pick could make an impact.

“I’ve seen him play up close. I’ve seen all the things he can do and lost games to his team, large degree of his efforts,” said Harbaugh.

When he faced him as head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh described James as an overall “explosive” player and that the characteristics that stood out to him in James’ game – “change of direction, speed, playmaking ability, durability, number of carries, number of yards, number of touchdowns” – were all elements that make him a special player.

In reaction to the suggestion that the selection of James indicated an indictment of Frank Gore, Harbaugh insisted that, “he will come in to compete with solid football players … winning football players … it’s gonna get real real, real fast.”

Regarding both Jenkins’ and James’ opportunity to compete on the team, Harbaugh explained that “they definitely have great ability, and speed … a lot more to their game than just speed, both of those youngsters that we’ve added in this draft. They’ll get opportunity and they’ll have the license to go out and compete and find their role. Whether that’s a contributor, starter, how much of a contributor if they are a starter. That will unfold.”

He went on to compare James “favorably” to all-pro running back Ray Rice and confirmed that someday he could see James handling a similar type of workload as Rice in Baltimore.  Not only has Rice has averaged 240 carries and 1095 yards per year since he was a rookie in 2008, but he has also amassed an average of 63 receptions and 559 receiving yards per year as well.

For now, I’ll settle for James’ presence on the field providing a constant threat to beat the defense to the edge with fly sweeps, outside zone plays, or screens.  They are also getting a durable one-cut runner and a weapon in the passing game as both a primary and check down receiver.  Watch James’ snaps against in state rival, Oregon State University, to get a feel for his playmaking ability.

James should factor in as an explosive playmaker in more ways then one.

When addressing criticism that James would project to be nothing more then a third down back, Harbaugh said that he “doesn’t think that he’ll be limited to just a third down back. You have to take into consideration fourth down, too. This is somebody that has a chance to evolve into a punt returner, a kickoff returner …  He’s proven that he’s a multi-down back in our eyes.”

Finally, Trent Baalke offered his thoughts on poker and the 49ers backfield: “We’ve got a full house … that’s a good hand, right?”

Watch some more James highlights to let it sink in that the Niners just added one of the best college football players in recent years.

It’s a novel idea, really.

Grown men in their 30s, 40s & 50s, who are essentially overgrown kids themselves, teaching actual kids how to be good at playing a game; sure there’s heavier themes involved around the plight of maturation and development of accountability, circles of atonement, good versus evil (as some would have you believe) – but, for the most part, the foundation of enjoyment from a sport like football can usually be traced back to the yards and streets of rural and suburban America.

I can still visualize the playing field that my friends and I would so routinely take: two telephone poles about 50 yards apart marked the end zones, cars scattered on the edges to provide landmarks for play calling or defenders for passing windows; unique to our field though (maybe not) were the telephone lines that needed to be avoided on all deep throws and kicks.  Even when my friends weren’t around, I would find my way out there.  My dad would instruct me to run routes.  Each one of our favorite players had a different designated route.  Jerry Rice was always a “fly” pattern; Russ Francis, and later John Frank and Brent Jones was always a “button hook”; John Taylor was a “slant” and for a Mike Wilson, I had to get into a 3-point stance…you get the idea.  Man, pops would lay it out there for me and I would have to run under it, most of the time catching the perfect spiral in stride…we knew what Joe Montana to Jerry Rice felt like, and we could get that feeling any day, right there in front of our house.

Eventually, as my friends and I got older, we just took it to the fields at the junior high and high school and from there our love of competition, skill and camaraderie fueled a life-long obsession with this kids game…at least for me it did.  Sessions with dad turned into practice with dad, and the seeds of affirmation were readily planted.  Somewhere along the line there the fun part became a little less important.  The lines are blurred, really, as to when that was.  I can’t put a finger on it.  All I know is there was then…and there is now.

Now, football is a job.  It can be rewarding, but there are also times when I ask, “why…why am I putting so much into this kid’s game?”  Energy, passion and time – it’s all soaked up into this never ending abyss, and when you least expect it you find a way to put in even more.  More than you thought you had.  It just keeps regenerating.

And then you have the kind of day that reminds you why you love being a bigger kid teaching a little kid’s game.  And you think, “how in the world could I spend my time doing something else? this is what I do, this is what I am…I am a football coach, and I love my job.”

Carlos Rogers executes a break using the T-Plant technique

We have been moving rather slowly in our spring ball drills.  When I say slow I mean we are doing a lot of things in repetition.  This is a good thing for building stimulus response.  We have established our Every Day Drills (EDDs) and are starting to get a little more in depth in terms of attaching the techniques to the scheme.  Everything that we have established to this point stems from an off-man or zone approach.  When we start competing in 1on1’s we will need to be prepared to work on press footwork and techniques as well.

We have been very deliberate in working on the T-plant break though, as I want them to be able to have something to hang their hat on.  We know, and can be confident in the fact that, through repetition, we will be quick and efficient when we react to those visual cues that tell us to break on the ball.  There is more than one way to change direction but I am adamant that we will do it one way as a group and we will become experts at using the T-plant technique.  I believe that this will help to establish a standard for what we expect in terms of execution and provide the framework for the importance of paying attention to even the smallest detail as we progress.  It is just as important to condition the athlete’s mind-set as to how he views (thinks about) learning, practicing and perfecting the techniques necessary to compete at a high level, as it is to condition the neuromuscular patterning required to achieve desired levels of execution.

Fundamental drills that we have progressed to:

1.Swipe and secure when breaking through the receiver

2. Weaving to maintain inside leverage against a wide receiver taking an inside release

3. House turn and playing the ball at the highest point

Some of the extended concepts/drills that we worked in our last session included:

1. Reviewed wide receiver splits and correlating assignments

2. Reviewed quarterback profile and 3-step and 5-step drop (gun and center) reads

3. Combined the T-plant drill with an angle break drill to break on a hitch and slant route

4. Expanded 3/5-step reads to incorporate sink technique and angle break (defending the smash combo)

Drills that we need to introduce next:

1. In/Out of phase

2. High point take away

3. Feet, hips and hands (press techniques)

4. Reverse creep, jam and sink (collision & vision – hang and robber techniques)

5. Breaking through the receiver and recovery on double moves (hitch-go, slant-corner, post-corner & whip)

Communication to be addressed:

1. Sink in base/quarters

2. Trade in quarters

3. Hang and rob in bandit

4. In call by corner to OLB/SAF

5. Cross call by SAF/OLB to ILB

This off-season marks my second year working with the defensive secondary after eight years of coaching on the offensive side of the ball. The experience has been very rewarding in terms of re-invigorating my passion for teaching and coaching as well as pushing myself beyond my own limits of comfort and knowledge.  The intensity and devil may care attitude that defines the appeal of the defensive side of the game has been not lost on me.  Breaking down offensive game film was second nature for me and I was able to contribute to the development of our defensive coverage schemes.

Still, however, there is that pull that tugs at me when I catch a glimpse of the offense throwing routes on air, spreading out in formation, working on timing and execution, linemen in the chutes and on the boards . . . there’s just so many moving parts to work together; I miss the conformity of it all.

When I first started coaching defense I got caught up in approaching the defensive back position like the wide receiver position.  I tried to diagnose specific techniques for specific scenarios; offensively, techniques are designed by assignment and assignment is defined by scheme.   It’s all very neat and orderly, in a way, and I was able to develop a sound schema for coaching several positions on offense based on learning and teaching the techniques that would help to increase the efficiency of execution.

I soon found out that it was more important on defense to focus on things like run/pass recognition, change of direction, pursuit angles and other more general skills that would allow the defender to be in position to utilize his athleticism within the scheme of the front or coverage.  I was taking for granted the reactionary aspect of defensive play early on and it made my foray into coaching defense akin to learning how to coach all over again.

In retrospect, that is exactly what I needed…

DB techniques drilled during the first week of spring ball:

1. Stance

2. Creep

3. Tempo

4. Weave

5. Ball Drills

6. T-Plant footwork

In out first on-field spring practice session this year we worked on form running and sprint mechanics for the majority of the day.  Points of emphasis in this area included: arms bent at elbows at 90-degrees focusing on linear movement from the shoulder joint, opposite arm driving the opposite leg, erect spine, head and eyes up, legs turning over in a circular motion with the foot flexing and extending against the ground as the heel pulls through, and connecting the upper and lower body together in a kinetic chain to get the most out of our movements.

As with everything worth teaching, we broke the process of sprinting into drills to repeat the desired movements:

1. Stationary arm swings

A. Striders – :30

B. Stride/Sprint/Stride – :10/:10/:10

C. Spring/Stride/Sprint – :10/:10/:10

2. Stationary hip flexibility/range of motion

A. Leg swings front to back – 20 on each leg

3. Stationary circular motion/stride turnover

A. Standing (partner) “swipe & cycle” – 20 on each leg

4. Moving circular motion/stride turnover

A. Single leg quick step – every 3rd step right leg for 10 yards/left leg for 10 yards

B. Full cycle run – 20 yards

5. Striders/buildups – 20/40/60 yards

As we progress in our stability training in the morning we will gradually introduce change of direction drills throughout the spring as well.

There is much back and forth as to who will be the first pick in this year’s NFL draft.  Consensus say’s that it will be Luck going number one to the Indianapolis Colts.  However, there is definitely some among the pundits and [over] analysts who think that Griffin would be the better choice.  I found each of the quarterbacks’ last college game on youtube; two of the most exciting bowl games I have watched in a while as they were both high scoring affairs that went into overtime.

Clips from Andrew Luck’s last college game, the Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma State:

Clips from Robert Griffin III’s last college game, the Alamo Bowl vs University of Washington:

This video, featuring Coach Raphael Ruiz from CrossFit Football, adds considerable dimension to the old football cliche, “when the bullets start flying” as he draws an analogy to grouping shots on a target at a firing range versus firing at an actual live target with bullets actually flying back at you.  The idea behind the analogy is that training an athlete’s emotional response in situations of stress will improve said athlete’s “default” level of performance.  In terms of training for football, or any high intensity sport, taking the thinking or emotion out of rehearsed actions and re-actions so that production or performance is maximized is always the goal.

John Welbourn, co-founder of CrossFit Football explains the necessity for training for optimum performance further:

For football, we know the demands; football is a game of inches and seconds. We know that timeframe and scale, and we know when, where, and how game day is played. Knowing this, we can precisely prepare for the demands of the sport. What we cannot control is the player’s talent: his instincts, and his ability to react to stress, pressure, and the opponent. We know what weapons we need in our arsenal and we will know when and how to use them. Optimum training results in optimum performance, and the optimally prepared athlete is in the position to make the best use of his talent, and thus to fulfill his potential as a player.”

Ruiz refers to the desired final outcome, a product of stimulus response programming and training, when he asserts that “no matter if you’re on field, no matter if you’re in the weight room, you’re trying to develop the mentality that you’re a bullet in a gun. Squeeze the trigger . . . the bullet does what? Does it think? Does it hesitate? Does it go slow? It goes as hard, as fast as it can possibly go—no matter what.”

So, the trick for us coaches is to find a way to manage that emotion and stress that comes with competition so that your athlete’s training can take over “when the bullets are flying” and trust that he will do what is asked of him when everything is on the line…