Charlotte 49ers free safety Ben DeLuca would have you believe there’s no real method to the art of forcing a fumble, something he did better than anybody else in the country last season.
“I don’t really think there’s a technique,” DeLuca said. “Last season, I couldn’t seem to catch the ball with interceptions, so any time I got around the ball, I’d punch it and rip it. I got lucky a few times and was able to give the ball back to the offense.
“So there’s no secret recipe. I’m just trying to tackle the ball carrier, secure him and then try and rip it out.”
DeLuca was an anomaly - statistically, at least - for the 49ers last season, when they went 1-11 and finished near or at the bottom of several Conference USA and national team defensive rankings.
But DeLuca, a junior from Orlando, Fla., forced five fumbles, averaging out to a nation’s-best .45 per game.
“Some guys have a knack for things, and Ben has that for knocking the ball out,” said new 49ers defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.
As often as the 49ers were getting the ball back thanks to DeLuca, Charlotte’s offense could only capitalize twice. One of them was among the season’s biggest plays, when DeLuca jarred it loose against against Ala.-Birmingham in the fourth quarter. That turnover led to a 49ers touchdown, tying the score 17-17 and eventually sending the game to overtime, where Charlotte secured its only victory of the season.
“Turnovers are something you have to be mentally keyed in on,” DeLuca said. “Sometimes it’s that extra mental prep. You have to be ready for any scenario to present itself and be realizing where you’re at and what you can do at your position. Then you know if you’ve done your task, you can help out and maybe steal one.”
DeLuca might under play how he developed his fumble-forcing skill, but there really is more to it.
“There’s no fluke about it,” said linebacker Juwan Foggie. “He practices it every day. He punches that ball at that right angle.”
DeLuca also concedes he has studied former NFL defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who was also well-known for his acumen at separating the ball from players. Tillman, who played for the Carolina Panthers in 2015, forced 44 fumbles over a 13-season career, including four in one game in 2012.
”I’ve spent time looking at him, what he did to create so many,” DeLuca said. “He’s in there punching and grabbing. He must have been doing something right.”
As effective as DeLuca was in the fumbles-forced category, he was also part of a bigger problem for Charlotte last season, when the 49ers had a minus-nine turnover margin, tied for 115th lowest in the country. The 49ers had only two interceptions (one by strong safety Ed Rolle, the other by Foggie). It was a severe drop off from 2016, when Charlotte led C-USA with 12.
“I feel like it was one of those seasons where we were just off defensively,” DeLuca said. “When I was a freshman, we led the conference in interceptions. Now we’re focusing on it, making it a point of emphasis. We’re really hounding on that, and trying to get at least three at each practice.”
That emphasis comes from Spencer, who is installing a defense predicated on a 4-3 alignment, one that should lead to more pressure on the quarterback and, theoretically, produce more potential interceptions. Pressuring the quarterback was also a 49ers weakness in 2017, when they only sacked opposing quarterbacks 11 times.
“(Spencer) brings in a breath of fresh air,” DeLuca said. “I think the new alignment will be big on us getting pressure. We had a lot of that my freshmen season with (nose tackle) Larry (Ogunjobi, now with the Cleveland Browns) and (tackle) Brandon (Banks, who was with Washington in 2017). We had lots of interceptions based on pressure. So having four down linemen this year will kind of provide some extra pressure and relieve some of it for us on the back end.”
Said Spencer: “We need a group of guys who have a knack of stripping the ball at the right time, but it’s also the same with interceptions. We have to time up our routes. For some, that comes instinctively. But the key to getting turnovers is having guys who go to the ball.”
If the new defensive system helps translate into something more successful than last season’s one-victory nightmare, it will be worth it for DeLuca.
“I kind of a have a bitter taste in my mouth from last season,” DeLuca said. “When you have something happen to you like that, you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what we’re working for now.”