Arik Armstead was vacationing in Mexico when his phone rang. He didn't recognize the number but answered anyway. The voice on the other end immediately got his attention because it was loud and passionate, attributes commonly associated with Kris Kocurek.
Kocurek had just been hired as the 49ers' new defensive line coach, and though he had never met Armstead, he wanted to tell the former Oregon star what he thought of his game and how he envisioned the 6-foot-7, 292-pound end becoming a dominant force in his fifth season. Go get your iPad, he said.
Go to the Kansas City game, play 69. You see how you ejected this guy? This is what you're going to do all next year. This is going to be the best year of your life. Arik, I believe in you! I'm going to help you achieve your goals!
"He had me on the phone for an hour," Armstead recalled last week. "That's just who he is. He's a football junkie, but more than that I would say he's a D-line junkie. It's all he cares about in life when it comes to football. He's addicted to D-line play. That's all he thinks about, all he cares about. That's like his high in life. He'll tell us, 'I only slept for an hour last night because I was thinking about this stunt or this play.' That's how his brain works."
While it's correct to attribute the improvement of the 49ers' pass rush this season to the trade for veteran end Dee Ford and the addition of dynamic rookie end Nick Bosa, who was drafted No. 2 overall, such a sentence is incomplete without a mention of Kocurek, who has been central to the defense going from 37 sacks last season to 48 this year. The Texas native pursues perfection with the same relentlessness his linemen hunt quarterbacks. The next time he turns off that passion will be the first.
He's the guy who sits in the front of the plane on the trip home after a road win and randomly texts DeForest Buckner in the back of the charter about a particular play or stunt he has just observed while watching game footage. He's the one who will send texts to Solomon Thomas at 10 at night to remind him about points of emphasis or a technique that should work that weekend. He doesn't wait to tell the players in person because he wants to address it while fresh in his mind. He also likes the idea of his players thinking about the game as much as he does.
"He's just a real passionate dude," said Buckner. "He cares about everybody in the room and wants them to succeed. When we go out there, he wants us to dominate because he believes everything starts up front. He instilled in us early in the year that a big part of where we want to go as a team is going to depend on what we do up front, and it's proven to be true."
Kocurek connects with his players in part because they know he has no aspirations to be a head coach or a coordinator. His passion is the trenches, and it comes through in every conversation or text message. He is what he is -- a person who played D-line in high school, in college and for two seasons with the Tennessee Titans -- and he's fine with that. He understands not only the position but the mindset to be successful, which is why he demands that his players give to him the same things he gives to them: energy, focus and an unwavering commitment to be better than they were the day before.
He is not interested in excuses. His shoulders are broad but not always comforting. Tell him you're tired or sore, act as if you have nothing more to give, mope because you've sustained an injury, and he just might pull out his phone and call up pictures of his wife's battle with Stage 3 breast cancer.
Amy Kocurek, who is currently disease free, was diagnosed in 2015 and went through seven painful months of chemotherapy and radiation. She lost 40 pounds, all of her hair and had a double mastectomy.
"Seeing her go through the daily grind of beating it and fighting for her life, that was a rough time for her and a rough time for me. It was definitely eye-opening," said Kocurek. "She went through a dark period and had to get out of it to get to where she is now, which is fully recovered. She's coming up on her five-year anniversary, which is a huge anniversary for someone who has had breast cancer. So when a guy might have a high ankle sprain and, all of a sudden, thinks it's the end of the world because he's going to be out four weeks, I've got pictures that can bring it back to reality pretty quick."
That matter-of-factness is central to what makes Kocurek so effective. He is clear and concise in what he expects from his players, hence his call and hourlong talk with each of them after he was hired. He wanted them to understand exactly what he expected of them at that point of the offseason as well as going forward. Many of his philosophies, including the wide-nine system he installed, were learned from Jim Washburn, his position coach with the Tennessee Titans. But Kocurek understands the game is played between the ears as well as the white lines. It's why he likes to make his players uncomfortable.
For instance, last offseason he repeatedly showed cut-ups of the Lions defensive line from his nine seasons in Detroit. Some of those units featured Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and Ziggy Ansah, talented players who helped Detroit linemen record 250 sacks in the eight seasons Kocurek was the primary position coach. The total and the 57 forced fumbles were both fourth-highest in the NFL by a line during that time.
Kocurek's purpose was not simply to highlight what his previous lines had done; it was to motivate his new group to create their own cut-ups. He knew after a while they would get irritated and angry, which they did. The group vowed to do enough to have its own cut-ups the following year.
"One of the more underrated attributes a coach has is being able to keep his guys focused and keep them motivated. That's hard to do," Ford said. "You have to piss guys off, and he's not shy about doing that. He doesn't intend on pissing you off, but when you get older and you become more of a pro, you don't want to be told what to do or pushed beyond your comfort zone. He's not afraid to do that."
Despite tying for fifth in sacks during the regular season, the 49ers arguably were unrivaled at harassing passers. They attacked in waves, utilizing the speed of Ford, the quickness and technical proficiency of Bosa, and the size and power of Buckner and Armstead to spend as much time in backfields as some running backs. The group is so deep that, in most cases, Kocurek can limit each player's snap count at 50, thus keeping the group fresh not only in the fourth quarter but also from series to series.
The other key to the line's effectiveness is the players' ability to be on point with their assignments. San Francisco's coaches often present the game-plan as if telling a story. The simpler the story, the greater the comprehension, the faster guys can play.
"Gray area always creates hesitation. You want these players playing in a world of black and white, so they know what's expected of them so they can go as fast as humanly possible," said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. "Kocurek is the definition of black and white. He's very clear and cut with what he's asking of the players. He's very clear and cut with his techniques."
And yet, Kocurek is as colorful as his teachings are black and white. His way of communicating often gets a smile or a laugh from his players. If you doubt this, ask any of them about the meaning of DILLIGAF, which is one of Kocurek's more memorable sayings.
"We've got to play with a 'Do I Look Like I Give A F---' mentality," Armstead said by way of translation.
And yet it is a more basic mantra that resonates and motivates the group.
"D-line pride for life," said Buckner. "That's what he preaches. He has always been a D-lineman, from college and high school, and it's always been about the guys in the room. It's almost like a fraternity, especially at this level. So his whole thing is D-line pride for life, and it's great to see a coach who cares about each and every one of us individually."
Said Kocurek: "That's what I am. That's what I love. That's what got me into this game and brought me as far as I am in the NFL. I'm a D-lineman, been a D-lineman my whole life. When I first got into coaching, I tried to learn about the intricacies at defensive back and linebacker, but over three years that never really lit my fire. My eyes kept gravitating to the guys up front. It was clear that's where I belonged."