Steve Wilks encouraged by young CBs amidst nickelback auditions

Aug 16, 2023, 8:00 AM | Updated: 9:56 am

Steve Wilks; Ambry Thomas #20 of the San Francisco 49ers breaks up a pass to Kristian Wilkerson #83...

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

If there’s one thing we learned from Steve Wilks’s comments this week, it’s that the nickel cornerback spot is still up for grabs.

The San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator left Sunday’s preseason loss to the Raiders with some positives and negatives, choosing to highlight both in his presser Tuesday. After stating that the defense failed to play to the ‘standard’ of the squad, Wilks mentioned a few players by name that stood out, including third-year cornerback Ambry Thomas.

“[CB] Ambry [Thomas] I thought did a tremendous job and some of the things that we saw on tape, particularly also during the game, coming up strong on that fourth-down play,” Steve Wilks said Tuesday. “And then having a PBU. Same thing with [CB] Samuel Womack [III]. I think critical situation on the toss. We pride ourselves at the corner position coming up making tackles, and it was great to see those guys doing that.”

Wilks & the 49ers have been searching for a lockdown nickelback all summer, hoping that one will emerge from the crop of talent they have run the secondary. The team even went out and brought in a versatile veteran at the position, Isaiah Oliver, during free agency. So far though, none have taken hold of the job with strong conviction, causing Wilks to look for alternative lineups in practice.

“It is just really a rolodex of players, to be quite honest with you. And we did some things today where, we put [CB D’Shawn] Jamison inside, we moved Demo [DB Deommodore Lenoir] back inside a little bit. Certain reps, [CB] A.J.’s [Parker] been doing a great job inside at nickel as well. So, we just really continue to try to find the mix. We love the competition and trying to make sure guys continue to get better,” he explained.

As for Oliver, he did little to lock down the position Sunday, struggling in both run & pass protection in Las Vegas.

Signing a two-year deal with the franchise, the Colorado alum will get his fair share of chances to be named a starter in Week 1. But, he’ll need to start showing more consistency on the field.

“I think everybody is still trying to fight for certain positions. Oliver, along with certain others, I think just the consistency that we’re looking for. And I think once you get in the game, it’s about opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities and making plays,” Wilks stated.

One secondary member that has shown improved consistency is Deommodore Lenoir.

The third-year CB has taken hold of the 49ers’ second secondary slot alongside Charvarius Ward, thrust into the role after Emmanuel Moseley tore his ACL in Week 5 last season. Struggling at first, the southern California native’s play improved throughout the 2022 postseason. Since then, he’s only grown, with Steve Wilks enamored by his maturity on the field.

“Just as you just mentioned, the maturity. Third year. He talked about it today. I walked up to him and he talked about taking the classroom to the field. He got back in there today and it’s like he had been playing nickel all offseason,” Wilks described. “So that was encouraging to see. Just his communication, recognizing formations, and adjusting to motion and those kinds of things because it happens fast in there. And another thing that people don’t really understand, you’re a linebacker in the run fit, and then of course you’re a DB in coverage. So, understanding run fits is critical at that position. He did a good job with that today.”

For the time being, San Francisco will continue to hold “tryouts” for the inside CB role this season. That could mean anyone from Oliver to undrafted rookie D’Shawn Jamison is able to take control of their destiny amongst the secondary starters.

And if we’ve learned anything from the defensive-minded coach, it’s that he doesn’t play favorites.

“I think you have to always look at, ‘Okay, we need our best guys on the field’ and it depends on right now who’s playing the best. If Ambry or Womack is playing better, of course we’re going to move Demo back inside. So, I think it’s a luxury that you have these options. And what we’re trying to create, once again, is just a competition across the board,” Steve Wilks said. 

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