Detroit Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek earns players' respect despite inexperience

Published: Friday, December 24, 2010, 9:00 AM

By Tom Kowalski

Kris Kocurek

ALLEN PARK -- Kris Kocurek, the defensive line coach for the Detroit Lions, is only two days older than Lions veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. In most cases, that might make for an awkward situation, especially since Kocurek, 32, is in just his first year as an NFL position coach.

Vanden Bosch has played 10 years in the NFL. How is he going to take any advice or grant any respect to Kocurek, who has coached just 14 games in the league?

"I think it's important as a player that you owe a coach respect,'' Vanden Bosch said. "Kris wasn't just given this job, he was here last year and he showed his ability to coach. Just because it's his first year as a position coach in the NFL, it doesn't mean he doesn't deserve that respect or that he's not a capable coach. He's shown in his first year that he's among the best and he's shown the ability to coach, not only players of high expectations -- players like myself and (Ndamukong) Suh -- but every guy on our roster can step on the field on Sunday and execute our defense.''

Kocurek had been the defensive line coach at Stephen F. Austin in 2008 when he was hired last year to be an assistant to veteran coach Bob Karmelowicz in Detroit. Kocurek's role increased during that season as Karmelowicz fell ill.

When Karmelowicz passed away in the offseason, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz entrusted the job to Kocurek.

"Karm was great to have in the room because he'd been at it for more than 20 years. He dealt with all kinds of players, the hard ones to deal with and the easy ones to deal with,'' Kocurek said. "I watched how Karm interacted with the guys on a day-to-day basis and (was) picking his brain on the differences between veteran players and young players and how you treat them. Karm was a brilliant guy, in football and in dealing with people. It helped me a lot being in the room with him for a full year before making the transition.''

For Kocurek, the addition of Vanden Bosch last offseason was a double-edged sword. On the plus side, he is an exceptional player and excellent leader. On the down side, Vanden Bosch had been coached by Jim Washburn for five years, a coach Kocurek knows well and considers to be the league's best.

Kocurek wondered how he would measure up to Washburn, especially in the eyes of Vanden Bosch. If a player like Vanden Bosch wasn't going to follow Kocurek, none of the other defensive linemen were going to, either.

"It's big when you bring in a guy like Kyle Vanden Bosch to earn his respect and earn his trust in the way you're coaching the position,'' Kocurek said. "He's been in the league for a long time and, in my opinion, the Titans' D-line coach is the best coach in the NFL and Kyle's played for him the last five years. Those are hard shoes to fill.

"Winning him over was big and it's not like I won him over, I just kept applying the things I learned from Coach Washburn.''

It worked.

"I think they're very similar in their approach,'' Vanden Bosch said. "The way this defensive line plays, it's the way it's meant to be played. The scheme is as much about attitude as technique and Kris has that same type of attitude -- attacking and being aggressive and getting after it. I think that's reflected in the players on the D-line.''

While Vanden Bosch and seven-year veteran Corey Williams are the elder statesmen on the line, that position is chock full of young, talented players.

"I think he's doing a really good job,'' Turk McBride, a fourth-year player, said of Kocurek. "He's going off his own knowledge and he knows a lot, but he listens to the veterans, too. There's some push and pull and it's great because it's what he sees on the film and what we see on the field. There's definitely a mixture. I think it's working. He's doing a great job.''

Cliff Avril couldn't seem to get out of Karmelowicz's doghouse last season, but he's blossoming in his third NFL season with a career-high eight sacks -- including seven in his past six games.

"He knows how to approach everybody because everybody has different personalities. He doesn't treat everybody the same, from the way he game plans to the way he talks to us,'' Avril said of Kocurek. "He's doing a great job with us and he's also got Kyle and I think all of that keeps the room together.

"He respects us as men. He was a player once, too, and some coaches will come in and tell you 'This is how it has to be done,' but he considers whether there's another way of doing it. He'll consider your comments.''

Kocurek spent two years in the NFL after being drafted in the seventh round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2001. After one year there, Kocurek spent a season with the Titans -- where he played under Schwartz. After getting released, Kocurek began his coaching trek, which consisted of mostly smaller Texas schools.

He has learned enough to be an NFL assistant coach, but he's still young enough to relate to players.

"Early in the season, I was having problems because I was down on myself because I was wondering why I wasn't getting sacks,'' Avril said. "I was able to go talk to him and that's a lot different from previous coaches we've had where I was too afraid to speak to the coach or not sure what he was going to say. I can talk to him.''

All eight members of the Lions' defensive line (except for Willie Young, who has been active for just one game), have recorded at least one sack this season. Two weeks ago, in the upset win against the Green Bay Packers, all four of the Lions' sacks were by backup defensive linemen. Vanden Bosch did not play in that game because he was put on the injured reserve list with a neck injury.

"The most impressive thing about (Kocurek) has been the development of everybody,'' Vanden Bosch said. "We've got such good depth and that's a tremendous credit to him. Other guys have been able to step in because he's had them prepared each week.''