One notation the incoming 49ers coaching staff made upon arriving in Santa Clara: not enough sleds.
Blocking sleds – a wide variety of them – are a favorite of defensive-line coach Jerry Azzinaro, who has his young group of linemen whaling away at the unwieldy metal objects throughout practice. After all, Azzinaro reasons, his players aren’t allowed to hit offensive linemen during the ongoing non-padded practices and they have to hit something.
“When you’re in these minicamps and OTA situations, you don’t have the opportunity to put your hands on people in a violent manner,” he said Wednesday. “So that’s really the only tool that we have to use our hands in a violent manner.”
Azzinaro, 57, is a one-time college linebacker with a stocky build. He has a shock of curly, gray hair he wears combed back, a white beard and spectacles, all of which give him the appearance of Santa Claus.
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Hitting the sled over and over and over again creates a certain toughness that we want.
49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil
Except he’s not exactly merry. The 34-year coaching veteran doesn’t like interviews – all the 49ers assistants are available to the media this week per league mandate – and he comes off as crusty, gruff and a bit profane when he does them.
“If you try to be phony or try to be full of (profanity), it presents problems,” he said of his approach. “I just try to do what I do.”
Like longtime 49ers defensive-line coach Jim Tomsula before him, Azzinaro is in constant motion on the practice field, barking out instructions as his players go through their sled routine.
“Go, go … GO!”
“Tempo, combo now. Combo! Let’s go!”
And as with Tomsula, the defensive linemen love him.
“He’s the reason why I committed to Oregon,” said first-round draft pick DeForest Buckner, who played under Azzinaro and 49ers coach Chip Kelly for one season with the Ducks. “He likes to make a personal connection with everybody. He likes to know his players and help them build as a man off the field and a man on the field.”
Buckner and Arik Armstead, who also played at Oregon, are familiar with Azzinaro’s heavy-metal workouts. For the veterans who are used to walking past rusty, mildewed blocking sleds, however, they were a bit of a surprise.
Said defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil: “Those guys are ready to come out here with gasoline and torches and send those things up in flames.”
Buckner said the various types of sleds are designed to sharpen different techniques when it comes to striking an opponent. A defensive linemen must strike one way on a running play, another when pass rushing. There are wide strikes and tight strikes, strikes meant to defeat a single blocker and strikes for double teams.
Kelly, who also had Azzinaro on his Philadelphia Eagles staff, said he’s watched the spring sled work have an effect in the fall.
When you’re in these minicamps and OTA situations, you don’t have the opportunity to put your hands on people in a violent manner. So that’s really the only tool that we have to use our hands in a violent manner.
49ers defensive-line coach Jerry Azzinaro
“Wherever he’s been, I think his D-line is known for technique and how well they use their hands,” Kelly said. “To me, there’s a direct correlation between how much they use the sled. You obviously can’t do it against other bodies because of the injury factor, but you can do it on a sled. I think there’s a direct correlation, and you see it with how good our guys have been in their hand placement.”
Led by Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, the 49ers’ recent defensive lines built a reputation for being difficult to penetrate. McDonald, however, was dismissed at the end of the 2014 season, and Smith retired last summer. Last year, the 49ers finished 29th against the run and 27th against the pass.
This season, coaches will have to rely upon young players such as Armstead, Buckner, Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell, especially if veterans such as Ian Williams, who is dealing with an ankle injury, and Glenn Dorsey, who is coming back from an ACL tear, aren’t available early.
O’Neil, who ordered a shipment of new sleds before the spring sessions, said the work Azzinaro is doing now is building a mentality with those young linemen.
“It sets a tone,” he said. “Hitting the sled over and over and over again creates a certain toughness that we want.”