SANTA CLARA — David Mayo played precisely one special teams rep in college for the Texas State Bobcats. It was a punt coverage. He doesn’t remember much about it.
“I remember the drills and practice more,” said the former Carolina Panther linebacker.
Yet, when he first arrived in Carolina, special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven — who coached special teams in the NFL for 33 years — saw something he could use in the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder.
Over the last four seasons, he’s played on 326 special teams snaps. After signing a two-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday, it will be special teams that determines whether he’s able to stay on the roster as the replacement for the retiring Brock Coyle as their special teams hammer.
“I sat down with some coaches about the type of defense they’re running, and what type of special teams they’re running, and I think I’m going to fit really well,” said Mayo, who played in a career-high 13.35 percent of the Panthers’ defensive snaps last season. “I think the coaching staff in general has done this the right way. They run a great organization, and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
Mayo particularly likes San Francisco’s aggressive style on both defense and special teams, though it won’t be until OTAs that he finds out exactly which linebacker spot he would play.
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Mayo earned Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 after he tied the Sun Belt Conference record with 154 tackles at middle linebacker for Texas State.
Mayo filled in as a backup inside linebacker to both MIKE linebacker Luke Kuechly and WILL linebacker Thomas Davis for the Panthers, and started at the WILL to begin 2018 as Davis served a four-game PED suspension.
“I think they’re aggressive sets, but they’re also smart, and I think that’s a sound way to play defense, and the special teams is something similar, the type of way they play, aggressive,” Mayo said. “They want to play fast, and he wants to let us go, so I think that’s going to do well for me.”
The late DeHaven — he passed away from prostate cancer on Dec. 27, 2016 — was a demanding teacher for the former fifth-rounder, and thanks to his tutelage to start his career, Mayo developed into a big piece on special teams for Carolina, playing in 70.62 percent of special teams snaps last season.
“I remember he was tough, because I definitely had to go through a learning curve for special teams,” Mayo said on Thursday as he addressed the San Francisco media for the first time. “My first time playing special teams, it’s in the League, so he was hard on me, but not in a bad way. He wasn’t crossing [a line]. It was good. Still, to this day, I have dons of respect for him, love him. It was very sad to see him go.”
DeHaven’s final season was a special one, as the Panthers reached Super Bowl 50, coincidentally held in the stadium Mayo will now call home. Even with the crush of media and the two-week buildup to the game — which Carolina eventually lost 24-10 to the Denver Broncos — the fact that he was playing in the Super Bowl didn’t hit Mayo until he lined up for the opening kickoff.
“I was kind of looking around, like, ‘Oh, man,'” Mayo said. “All week, I think there were two weeks leading up to it, we came out here a week early, saw all this media attention, obviously, the whole nine yards, but it didn’t really quite hit me that I was there, until I was on the field.”
That was DeHaven’s last season coaching.
“I love him. That was my rookie year, and he knew his system pretty well,” Mayo said. “He knew what it took to play at a high level and go to Super Bowls. His thing was all about just sticking to the game plan, sticking to the assignments and trusting that it’s going to work. He knows it’s going to work, from his experience. You just had to do what you were coached to do, and do it well.”
He’s been doing just that, with 36 tackles in four seasons, playing all 16 games each of the last two. Near the middle of last season, he began to feel pain in his lower abdomen as he ran, which turned out to be a sports hernia. He had surgery to correct it in Philadelphia on Jan. 8, performed by Dr. William C. Meyers.