NAPA – Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was an All-Pro NFL middle linebacker with more than 100 starts. Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was al All-Pro NFL middle linebacker who was a three-time Super Bowl champion.
They’ve exchanged helmets for headsets these days, but their knowledge of the position hasn’t waned.
That means expectations are high for the man they let man the middle. Curtis Lofton spends every day under a watchful eye. He’s the thick-skinned, hard-nosed type who can handle scrutiny, and has experience to back up his opinions. After all, the man has started 111 games in seven seasons and had at least 118 tackles six straight years.
When asked if coaches are hard on him, Lofton’s eyes grew wide as a smile crept across his face.
So there isn’t much margin for error?
“Not at all.”
That isn't a bad thing. Lofton and Norton have an open dialogue about concepts, checks and execution. The eighth-year veteran appreciates having a sounding board. When that think tank comes together, good ideas come out of it.
“It’s really been a good experience,” Lofton said after Monday’s training camp practice at the Napa Valley Marriott. “One thing Coach Norton says is, ‘I lived it so you don’t have to.’ What I’m thinking, he already knows. He tells me how to do it. That helps me out but, at the same time, I have to listen. Sometimes I can get stubborn cause I have some experience at this level, but Coach Norton and Coach Del Rio played linebacker and have seen things and they know exactly what’s going on.
“They are hard on us. That’s the way I like it, because that’s the way to make this defense better.”
Norton and Del Rio appreciate having a man with experience and productivity manning the middle. It makes things easier to translate to the field, especially during a phase where the defensive scheme is being refined.
“When you have a former middle linebacker as your coordinator and a former middle linebacker as your head coach, that position becomes very important,” Norton said. “You look at Curtis’ background and he’s played a lot of football for a long time and hasn’t missed any games. So, he’s very, very productive. Very smart. Knows how to play ball. And knows how to run the defense. He’s a guy I’m glad we have.”
Lofton has come to appreciate Norton’s teaching style. He installs scheme in sections, allowing his players to work out kinks and get good at certain concepts before moving on to the next thing. The scheme also makes it fun to be a linebacker, which is no shock considering the resumes of the men who created it.
“The defense is set up to help you play fast and come downhill,” Lofton said. “As a linebacker, this system you love playing in.
“We’re multiple with what we do. We have a ton of versatility and depth, and that allows us to do things that offenses have trouble with.”
Lofton will be an extension of Norton on the field, though he’s happy he doesn’t have to do it all on his own. There are other veterans to help out along the way.
“It’s huge when you have a leader at every level of the defense,” Lofton said. “Justin Tuck will handle the D-line, I’ll handle the linebackers and C-Wood (Charles Woodson) and Nate Allen will handle the secondary. We’ve all played a lot of football and have seen a lot of stuff. There isn’t much that’s going to surprise us.”