Grant Cohn: Ken Norton Jr. punches in; 49ers expect results to be a big hit

Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. during an NFL preseason football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)


“With Kenny, there’s got to be a couple of punching bags in the weight room,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said over the phone.

“There’s got to be a speed bag in there. A lot of his drill work emphasizes quick, violent hands, bouncing, being light on your feet. Kyle will be thinking, ‘Are we teaching boxing or football?’”

Kyle is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. And Kenny is Ken Norton Jr., the former Pro Bowl linebacker for the 49ers and Cowboys, the former defensive coordinator for the Raiders, the new assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach for the 49ers and the son of former heavyweight champion Ken Norton.

Saleh and Norton Jr. worked together on the Seahawks from 2011 to 2013 when Norton Jr. was their linebackers coach and Saleh was a defensive quality control assistant. Saleh worked under Norton Jr. Now, Norton Jr. works under Saleh.

“Kenny gets the players to perform at a very high level on game day,

Saleh said, “and a lot of it has to do with the way he teaches, very motivationally. And a lot of his teaching is through boxing, both technically and mentally.”

“Does boxing figure into your and Norton’s shared philosophy of football?” I asked.

“For him it does,” Saleh said. “I can’t fake it. I use golf as a reference.”

“Are you a good boxer? How’s your left hook?”

“I went into the boxing ring one time. I was on the floor by the end of the first round and I never stepped back in the ring. My cousin, though, he once had a fight ready for Hector Macho Camacho. Hector pulled out at the last second.”

Saleh’s cousin is Tarick “The Arabian Prince” Salmaci.

“What was the motivation for bringing Norton Jr. onto the coaching staff?” I asked.

“The motivation is Kenny knows our system inside and out,” Saleh said. “The presence that he’ll bring, the ability to relate to the players. His players absolutely love him. They’ll run through walls for him. It’s his delivery, his ability to teach and the genuine care he has.”

“Whose idea was it to bring him on?”

“Kyle spearheaded the whole thing. He knows Kenny through (Atlanta Falcons head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn. For Kyle, having Kenny around can even help out the offensive side of the ball. The things Kenny can do go so far beyond X’s and O’s. Kenny is a fantastic X’s and O’s guy, obviously — he was a coordinator in this league. But, his value from a presence and from a speaking standpoint go far beyond all of that.”

Let’s pause. Norton Jr. recently spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area, and here’s what he said about joining the 49ers:

“Since I became available, (Saleh) was the first call that I really received. And I really appreciate that. He just made it clear that they have a young player, (Reuben Foster), very talented, can do a lot of special things, and there’s no person that he’d like to teach him than myself. We started with that as the initial conversation, and then it went on to the head coach and general manager. We kept the conversation going, and this is where it ended up.”

So, Saleh was the spearhead, according to Norton Jr.

Back to my phone call with Saleh.

“What is your history with Norton Jr.?” I asked.

“When I got hired by the Seattle Seahawks back in 2011 — that was the first time I ever sat with him,” Saleh said. “Kenny’s got a very intimidating face. I thought he was about to tell me it was going to be his way, to keep my mouth shut, typical football-coach-speak to a younger guy. He said, ‘Rob, I want to do everything I can to help you get what you’re trying to achieve.’ It was absolutely true. Love the man.”

“Do you two see defense the same way?”

“Yeah. Kenny sees it exactly the way I do.”

“What is that way?”

“It all comes down to the people. How do you empower players to play with the most violence and speed that you can get out of them? That’s the philosophy of the scheme. It’s designed to maximize the athlete, rather than try to be a guru and trick offenses into throwing interceptions. When you’re talking about an NFL athlete, the difference between them is miniscule. And so, our philosophy is to maximize every athlete while other teams are trying to scheme people to death and slow people down.”

“How will Norton strengthen the coaching staff?”

“Kenny provides another voice to say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly the way we did it six years ago. This is why we did it six years ago. And these are the little things that we can do to make it even better.’ Just the extra voice, the extra echo to make it even stronger so there’s even more conviction coming out of those meeting rooms as we deliver it to the players. I think that’s where he’ll be a tremendous help.”

“What will Norton Jr.’s duties be?”

“He’s going to be coaching inside backers. I’m going to lean on him, obviously. Kyle is going to lean on him. He’s going to help to continue to implement the scheme.”

“What do you mean, ‘lean on him?’”

“To gather information, to see the way he sees things. Like, ‘Hey Kenny, how do you see the game working in the second half?’ Just another mind who really knows the scheme, really knows all our adjustments, really knows how we like to operate on game day. Just being able to lean on him a little bit more with regards to adjustments.”

“How do you see the defense improving next season?”

“The No. 1 thing is to figure out exactly how we can get better in two-minute situations. That’s me first – self-evaluation. We need to get better in two minute, red zone, third down. The money downs. If we take another step and complement what our offense is going to be capable of, we can put together a pretty good team.”

One might even say they could score a knockout.