When LB Sione Takitaki lines up across from the 49ers offense on Sunday, there will be a familiar face on San Francisco's sideline in LB Fred Warner.
Takitaki and Warner both played for BYU in college and overlapped as teammates from 2014-17. Takitaki played at BYU from 2014-18, redshirting in 2016. In his four seasons, he totaled 237 tackles, including 32.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. He was drafted by the Browns in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Warner played four seasons at BYU from 2014-17 and was drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Warner finished his collegiate career with 264 total tackles, 32 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
"That's my dude, man," Takitaki said. "He's a baller, very smart player who's really disciplined."
Over their four seasons together, Takitaki took note of Warner's example of how disciplined he was as a person.
"At a time where I [was]18,19 [years old], you know what I mean, kind of learning things," Takitaki said. "I felt like he was just very mature for his age in college, and it's definitely paying off."
Takitaki has grown in his own ways over his five seasons with the Browns, both on and off the field. Linebackers coach Jason Tarver said recently he's watched how Takitaki has grown from a Sam or Will linebacker to being able to handle different positions among the linebackers. Then in 2022, Takitaki earned the opportunity to be the full-time Mike, and now has experience across the board in the linebacking core.
After suffering a torn ACL in Week 13 of the 2022 season, and then signing a one-year contract extension with the Browns this offseason, Takitaki has played in the Browns first four games of the regular season. This season, he's also been their Sam linebacker for the Browns through the first four games. Through four games, he has eight solo tackles and one sack.
"What's been cool is to watch Sione figure out how to lock in," Tarver said recently. "It's amazing. And when a person in any field learns how they learn and can lock in, then they're ready for greatness. And Sione's process, that's been really cool to watch and help him along as good as I could."
Even though Takitaki will not line up against Warner on Sunday, he knows that the 49ers defense presents a tough challenge for the Browns offense in Week 6.
The 49ers have limited teams to a total of 321 rushing yards – which is third in the league – and two rushing touchdowns this season. They've given up 1,013 passing yards – which is 13th in the league – and five receiving touchdowns over five games. The 49ers on average allow 266.8 yards per game, and only 64.2 rushing yards per game.
Warner has continued to play an important role for the 49ers defense as part of a linebacker duo consisting of him and LB Dre Greenlaw. Warner has 29 solo tackles and 41 total tackles, as well as two sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and three passes defended. The other half of that pair in Greenlaw has 27 solo tackles and 37 total tackles, as well as a sack and two passes defended.
"Greenlaw is obviously physical," Takitaki said. "Those guys just fly around to the ball. I feel like the schemes have fit them well, and they've been putting it on tape year after year. So, excited to see those guys in action, too."
Takitaki and the Browns defense will also have their hands full with guys like QB Brock Purdy, TE George Kittle and RB Christian McCaffrey. They can be an explosive offense with different options with McCaffrey and their pass catchers, as well as Kittle and their strong offensive line.
"Feel like they do a good job taking care of the ball, making sure that they're not giving it away," Takitaki said. "Brock Purdy does a great job with his reads, a lot of movement, pre-snap, a lot of eye candy. But I think they're a real solid team. Obviously, it's the reason why they're 5-0, tip our hat to those guys. We're excited for the matchup."
Over the first month of the regular season, the Browns defense has demonstrated a high level of potential in who they can be on that side of the ball. They take pride in living up to a standard they have set for themselves to be a top defense in the league. Even with the 28-3 loss to the Ravens in Week 4, the Browns still have the top defenses in the league, as they have given up the least amount of passing yards (500) and rushing yards (287) this season. On average, the Browns only give up 196.8 yards per game, which leads the league.
Sunday will present their next challenge on all sides of the ball, especially as the 49ers come to Cleveland with a 5-0 record.
"They've been playing very good football on all three sides of the ball," HC Kevin Stefanski said. "We had really one eye on them last week in our work, in our bye week work, and then we'll really dive into them starting today."