Steve Wilks

How Wilks plans to help 49ers' secondary evolve in 2023

Steve Wilks has a couple of goals in mind for the back end of the 49ers' defense.

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SANTA CLARA -- Steve Wilks is hard to miss on the 49ers' practice field.

The team's new defensive coordinator could be seen Wednesday coaching up the secondary in between plays, yelling out adjustments and advice on the second and final day of mandatory minicamp.

"I coach through the back end because that’s really my expertise, so I see certain things back there and try to make coaching points on the run just to try to get those guys to self-correct themselves," Wilks said after practice. "Because there’s times, of course, during the game [where] you can’t get to them, so you just want them to be able to think about what should have just happened, and then hit the reset button and get ready for the next play."

Wilks is taking the reigns of a vaunted 49ers defense from DeMeco Ryans, who left San Francisco this offseason to become the Houston Texans' new head coach. But as San Francisco's new defensive mastermind, Wilks has stated on several occasions he doesn't plan on changing much -- just adding a few "wrinkles" here and there to what already has established itself as one of the best defenses in the NFL.

But there's always room for improvement, especially for a self-described secondary expert such as Wilks, and he has two goals in mind for the defensive backfield in 2023. As Wilks allows defensive line coach Kris Kocurek to continue producing results with his unit, the DC has honed in on the secondary in hopes it can match the front seven's production.

"One of our goals we talked about [is] trying to lead the league in the least explosive plays [allowed]," Wilks said. "I think we gave up too many last year. So, hopefully, you don’t see that. The fastest and quickest way to win a game is through the air, so as great as those guys may be playing up front, we’ve got to make sure we secure things on the back end. We don’t want to give up explosive plays, that’s number one.

"And two, we’ve got to make more plays on the football, interceptions, and then find a way to get into the end zone with those."

Explosive plays typically are defined as passing plays over 20 yards and rushing plays over 10 yards, and the difference between the front and back ends of the 49ers' defense is easily visible when examining how many explosive plays the team allowed this past season.

San Francisco allowed 51 explosive passing plays in 2022 compared to 25 explosive running plays. The 49ers' already impressive defense could be taken to new heights should the secondary improve upon that number in 2023, and that's something third-year cornerback Deommodore Lenoir recognizes he needs to work on as the season approaches.

With Wilks, Lenoir said he's focusing on reading his opponent's chest, following the ball downfield and finishing on the ball.

"Just finishing at level three, playing the ball down the field," Lenoir said Wednesday of how he can take the next step as a defender. "I feel like I struggled last year with playing the ball down the field. Just trying to track the ball and just playing with confidence."

Lenoir was thrust into a starting role in Week 5 of the 2022 campaign when Emmanuel Moseley sustained a season-ending ACL tear. The situation helped the former fifth-round draft pick gain confidence, and he was able to power through some bumps in the road as a starter to establish himself as a bonafide contributor.

Wilks has seen that poise carry over into the offseason for Lenoir, he said.

"I thought [Lenoir] took strides this offseason in really getting better, and you can see his confidence," Wilks said. "And I think his confidence is coming from, really, in his preparation. If you watch him each and every day as I have, you see him taking steps and really focusing on the details in the classroom, and it’s transferring to the field."

Lenoir's fellow corners Ambry Thomas and Sam Womack are getting better every day, too, Wilks added, and he believes veteran starter Charvarius Ward, who Lenoir said is like a "big brother" to him, has the skill set to be among the NFL's best at the position. Newcomer Isaiah Oliver, meanwhile, is being looked at to play the nickel back hole left behind by Jimmie Ward, while Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga lead the way at safety with rookie Ji'Ayir Brown waiting in the wings.

It's a hungry group, now led by "the godfather of DBs," as Lenoir described Wilks on Wednesday. And while the new DC is coaching up the secondary, it's clear the players are taking in every word of what Lenoir explained is a more technical approach than they're used to.

"I was very impressed," Lenoir said of Wilks. "... He’s got every answer, and he’s always a positive person. There’s plays that I gave up in OTAs, and it was never a real, like, breaking me down.

"It was always bringing me up and just telling me how I could be better."

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