The 49ers on Monday added a familiar name – and someone familiar with their defense – to the coaching staff: Ken Norton Jr., who spent seven seasons as a 49ers linebacker and won a Super Bowl with the team.
Norton, who served as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator the last three seasons until he was fired in November, has been given the title of “assistant head coach; defense/inside linebackers.” Johnny Holland, who coached the team’s linebackers last year, will become the run game specialist/outside linebackers coach. The title of assistant head coach allows the 49ers to pay Norton, 51, more than a position coach typically earns.
“Ken brings a great deal of knowledge and experience to our team, having spent more than two decades as a NFL player and coach,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said in a statement. “Throughout his coaching career, Ken has developed a tremendous understanding of our defensive system, making him a perfect fit for our staff. With four Super Bowl titles on his résumé, including one as a 49er, Ken knows firsthand what it takes to become a championship-caliber team.”
Norton, 51, spent the 2010-14 season in Seattle, where he overlapped for three seasons with current 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who was a defensive quality control coach at the time. In September, Saleh singled out Norton as someone who influenced his philosophy when he was with the Seahawks.
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“There’s just so much information to gather that I had not been exposed to as an individual,” Saleh said. “So my growth as a man, as a coach, as a person, that would be the most memorable thing for me. Just the overall information that was allotted to us.”
Norton served as linebackers coach in Seattle, meaning he has a longtime familiarity with linebacker Malcolm Smith, who played for both the Seahawks and Raiders.
Norton will coach Smith, who is expected to be the weak-side linebacker, and middle linebacker Reuben Foster, who is coming off an excellent – albeit, truncated – rookie season in which he dealt with ankle, rib and shoulder injuries. Norton has won the respect and admiration of his players as an assistant, to the point last year where, in a show of protest, Raiders linebackers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin skipped a day of practice after Norton was fired.
“Ken Norton’s like a father to me. He has changed my life in so many ways, not only on the field but off the field,” Irvin said in a December interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “It was a tough situation. I basically came to Oakland for him, and he was let go.”
Under Saleh, the 49ers finished 24th in total defense but were decidedly better than they were a year ago, when they finished last in the league and were bulldozed by nearly every offense they faced. The unit grew stronger late this season as players became more familiar with the scheme, defenders like Foster returned from injury and San Francisco’s offense started to control the clock.
The Raiders defense, meanwhile, finished 23rd in total defense but could not meet the soaring expectations that stemmed from their 2016 campaign. Head coach Jack Del Rio fired Norton on Nov. 21 following a 33-8 loss to the New England Patriots in Mexico City. A little more than a month later Del Rio was let go and the Raiders will on Tuesday announce the return of Jon Gruden as coach. Gruden previously coached Oakland from 1998-2001.
Norton, meanwhile, is a four-time Super Bowl champion, winning two as a linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys, one with the 49ers and the final one as an assistant with the Seahawks. When he joined the 49ers as a free agent in 1994, he became the first player to win three consecutive Super Bowls.
The 49ers also announced that Michael Clay, who had been an assistant strength coach, will take the title of assistant special teams coach alongside Stan Kwan. It’s not known how the moves will affect Jason Tarver, who has been in San Francisco the last three seasons and who last year had the title of senior defensive assistant.