Fred Warner quickly earned the reputation of being a well-spoken rookie in 2018.
The talented linebacker was often insightful and forthright with reporters as he was being tasked with calling out the plays in the huddle. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said he’s never had a better predraft meeting with a player; he gushed over Warner’s intelligence.
But Warner was hardly known as a big personality that provided energy between the lines. He was a rookie, after all, and had to earn that equity in the locker room before becoming someone to follow.
That appears to be changing heading into the 2019 season as Warner and the rest of the 49ers’ linebackers – who call themselves “The Hot Boys” – are establishing themselves the emotional spark plug for San Francisco’s new-look defense.
“Really because we’re the leaders of the defense,” free-agent addition Kwon Alexander said Friday. “Linebackers, we got to take control and be vocal and be loud and have the energy, and let everybody feed off you. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Since signing Alexander to a four-year, $54 million contract, his high-octane personality has rubbed off on the rest of the linebackers, including Warner, who has become one of the loudest voices on the practice field. When stretching ends, Warner has regularly run to the other side of the field imploring his offensive teammates to match his energy for the day.
“Fred’s coming into his own,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He wanted to, obviously, last year as a rookie, but having Kwon with him, because Kwon’s very vocal, it’s bringing out Fred. Fred’s very confident and just a good football player, so they do what a linebacker group is supposed to do, so I won’t pump them up for doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s a good group, though.”
Said Alexander: “Fred, I be telling him, ‘You got to match my energy today,’ and stuff like that. And he been going out and do it. He been very vocal, talkative, he’s out there making crazy plays and he’s going to keep doing that.”
‘The Hot Boys’ get fired up
Friday’s joint practice in Denver was another example of many throughout training camp of the new energy. Warner and the rest of The Hot Boys huddled before individual drills, yelled and chanted. The cool Colorado air and early morning start time weren’t going to lead to a sluggish beginning. The Alexander- and Warner-led linebackers were going to make sure their emotional fire set the tone for a spirited practice.
It appeared to pay off. Warner, during full-team drills, pressured Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco into throwing an interception to safety Tarvarius Moore. Near the end of the session, Warner forced a fumble that was recovered by rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who has also turned heads since getting drafted in Round 5.
The defense as a whole is playing with more juice, which was evident on the practice field Wednesday when it intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo on five straight attempts – even though Garoppolo was the one to garner headlines and not the defense.
“Oh, (our confidence) is light years ahead of last year,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “I think it’s just young guys being veterans this year. I think the experience of a lot of guys playing a lot of downs last year gave them the experience and confidence they needed to take the next step.”
The Broncos on Friday struggled against San Francisco’s attacking pass rush. The 49ers play a “one-gap” scheme, which calls for defenders to fire off the ball. Denver under new head coach Vic Fangio plays a “two-gap” approach, which requires defenders to read and react. It was clear during the first of two training camp sessions the Broncos had been practicing against two-gap approach for nearly a month as their training cap started in mid-July to prepare for the Hall of Fame game.
San Francisco caused problems for the Broncos passing game, even without Dee Ford (knee tendinitis) and Nick Bosa (ankle sprain), who remain sidelined.
“The energy, everybody’s feeding off each other, from the front end to the secondary, the linebacking corps,” DeForest Buckner said. “Everybody’s hyped up when everybody makes big plays, and just feeding off of each other.”
Making some noise
Even from the far end of the Broncos’ double-wide practice field Friday, the 49ers defenders could be heard celebrating their big plays, which also included an interception by linebacker Malcolm Smith of Flacco intended for running back Phillip Lindsay. The Hot Boys were controlling things.
“It’s huge. You see it, because they’re tone setters,” Sherman said. “They’re on just about every tackle because they’re in the middle of the defense. They can feel every pass play, every run play. And when they’re bringing energy, I think it emanates throughout the defense.
“I think today was a great example of how their intensity can change the day.”
Alexander’s deal remains one of the most polarizing signings of the offseason since he sustained an ACL tear in October, though he’s looked healthy during his first training camp with his new team. But for now, the Hot Boys continue to bring energy to a defense that sorely needs a turnaround after ranking 25th and 28th in opponents’ scoring the last two seasons.
“We want to be hot every day, when somebody cold we pick them up, we stay hot,” Alexander said. “We just hold ourselves accountable and everybody gotta have energy in the linebacker group and that’s what it is.”