Arik Armstead slowly got acclimated to professional football, a sport that does not slow down for newcomers.
It took time for the 49ers rookie defensive end – by way of Pleasant Grove High School and Oregon – to adjust to the speed of the game, the strength of veteran offensive linemen and the complexity of blocking schemes.
And the losing.
Armstead never got used to that. He doesn’t want to even consider embracing the idea of sustained defeat.
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The 49ers limped to the finish line as a beleaguered 5-11 bunch. It ultimately cost first-year coach Jim Tomsula his job. There were games in which the 49ers were booed off their Levi’s Stadium turf. Booing from the home crowd was foreign, too.
“Losing was hard, never easy, and that was super weird for me,” Armstead said. “I’ve always been on good teams. Even in Pop Warner, youth ball, we went to the championship. In high school, we played for championships and maybe lost five total games. Same thing in college. Losing so much this year was definitely different, and it was hard on all of us. But we were all going through the same stuff, the same adversity.”
Armstead had the recognition of being the 49ers’ first-round pick last spring. But such an honor can be a burden.No one expected the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder to be the missing piece to a Super Bowl championship like a modern-day Fred Dean or Charles Haley. He was expected to contribute, and he did, grading out favorably as a player with length, strength and agility.
“He’s had really good progress,” 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said at a late-season news conference. “(He’s) used to what it feels like to play in an NFL game. They get that sense of, ‘Hey, not only do I belong, but I can excel here.’
“He’s got an excellent work ethic. He’s easy to coach. He’s a good guy. He’s got a high motor.”
Armstead expects more of himself. He’ll dedicate the offseason to getting healthy – he endured myriad bumps and bruises – and getting stronger and faster. He will work out with his father, Guss, a noted area strength and conditioning coach.
“I want to get better at everything, and I need to get better at everything,” said Armstead, who was credited with two sacks this season. “Better at being a pass rusher, better at learning schemes, learning the opponent. That’s the best way to be effective is to know everything your opponent is doing. Football is so fun because there’s a never-ending knowledge part to it. If you apply yourself, you will learn and find out so much of this game.
“There’s so much to study, so much to learn, and I want to be one of the best defensive ends in football. That’s my goal. I had an OK season, but I can be better. If I’m satisfied now, I’ll never get better.”
Armstead said he liked Tomsula and appreciated the coach’s knowledge of the trenches. Tomsula was a longtime 49ers defensive-line coach before sliding over to the head-coaching role last winter after Jim Harbaugh and the team parted ways.
“He’s a good coach, a good guy,” Armstead said of Tomsula. “I liked him since the day I met him, when we didn’t even talk football. Talked about all kinds of things, just chillin’ and getting to know each other. We had a good relationship.
“It was a different dynamic having a head coach who used to coach D-line. He loved watching the D-line in practice, and if he noticed something I was doing, or another lineman, he’d come to us. I know he’ll land somewhere.”
As for why Tomsula lasted just one season as head coach, Armstead, the pass rusher, took a pass.
“That’s way over my pay grade to talk about,” Armstead said with a laugh. “I just try to focus on what I can do to help this team and better myself. I don’t get into things out of my control.”
A year ago, Armstead had limited control of his future. He had no idea where he’d play or be drafted. He went from a strong showing for Oregon in the national championship game, although the Ducks lost to Ohio State, to a whirlwind of offseason conditioning, the draft combine, the draft, then training camp.
“It went by so fast, and I really didn’t have a chance to slow down,” Armstead said. “It’s been a real eye-opener in the NFL. This definitely has a work feel to it. In college, it’s school, practice, hang out with homies. In the NFL, it’s a job, professional, a lot of film, meetings, practices, lifting, scouting reports. I enjoyed it.”
Armstead said he and his 49ers teammates are excited about the future.
“Whoever the new boss will be, it’ll be interesting to see,” Armstead said. “I know we have a lot of good pieces on our team, a lot of talent, good players. We can only go up from here, get better. I think we will.”