SANTA CLARA — An injury bug at 49ers training camp has forced some undrafted players into the limelight, and they’re mostly thriving in unexpected roles.
Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) was the latest safety to go down Monday at practice, tossing undrafted free agent Lorenzo Jerome (St. Francis) into the starting deep safety spot. He got beat deep at least once, but he’s held his own at what is being billed as San Francisco’s most important position on defense. Health issues at safety aren’t being deemed serious, but the 49ers are happy one of their undrafted players is showing potential.
Cole Hikutini (Louisville) jumped in George Kittle’s (hamstring) spot at tight end and he opened eyes with his athleticism. Hikutini hauled in at least four receptions including a big one over the middle from Brian Hoyer in first-team reps. Nicknamed “Dirty Tini” by his 49ers teammates, Hikituni has really impressive size (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) for a move tight end. Shanahan lined him up everywhere, and he’s been mostly producing. Four days into training camp, tight end appears to be a wide-open competition, and Hikutini turned in the best individual performance of them all on Monday.
The 49ers will have an off day Tuesday. Here’s what else we saw on Day 4.
-The Tim Hightower hype train is real. He received the first rep in 11-on-11s at running back, took a screen pass 50 yards down the field and has been running the outside zone-schemed plays with much success. It wasn’t Carlos Hyde’s best day either. He fumbled a toss early in practice and right now appears neck-and-neck with Hightower for the starting spot early in camp. Shanahan has long said evaluating running backs is very difficult until preseason games happen. For that reason, quiet starts from rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida should be taken with a grain of salt. For what it’s worth, Breida has had more big plays than Williams. They’re both going to get their chance. Raheem Mostert and Kapri Bibbs are also garnering carries.
-The passing offense sputtered to begin practice but rallied late. Shanahan said this was the first day it really felt like a back-and-forth between offense and defense. Hoyer started the day 3-for-11. There were some timing miscues and overall sloppiness. Nevertheless, Shanahan keeps dialing up deep passing plays and they keep working. Hoyer found Pierre Garcon over the middle for a shoestring 45-yard catch on Rashard Robinson. Hoyer and C.J. Beathard both hit Marquise Goodwin for 60-yard touchdowns — Goodwin’s probably having the best camp of any player, but the 49ers have serious issues at corner. Matt Barkley found Aldrick Robinson streaking down the sideline for a long touchdown. The secondary bounced back to a degree from Sunday, but too many big plays keep being allowed.
-Beathard took some second-team reps away from Barkley on Monday, probably his best day of camp yet. Beathard isn’t scared to sling the rock and he rarely fleas the pocket. He’s been less hesitant running the offense than Barkley has been.This isn’t the 49ers anointing him, and Barkley has certainly struggled to start camp, but Shanahan’s seen some very encouraging signs from his third-round pick.
“You can tell without even talking to him, watching him on tape the way he processes things,” Shanahan said. “He’ll play in that pocket with a lot of people around him. He can get through progression. He’s a very quick thinker. He’ll react and let it rip. He prepares very hard, he is very intelligent, but there’s a knack certain people have in the pocket where they don’t sit there and freeze: paralysis by analysis. The more he gets comfortable with the offense and stuff — he’s shown it already — but the more reps he gets, that’s one of his huge strengths.”
-Reuben Foster recorded his third interception in four practices. Without question, it’s time to take him off the third-team. He’s got this bounce on the field where he can sense a play happening before it does. What Shanahan liked most about Foster’s INT on Monday was that it came off a corrected mistake.
“The one he got today I was probably the most excited about,” Shanahan said. “It was the same one he had yesterday where it was a play-action. He killed the fullback, went and tackled the back. The wide receiver was wide open behind him and he was still looking for the run. He had the same play today and he didn’t fill up on the run. He dropped back and got a pick. One play he did bad on yesterday, and today we ran the same play at him, and he got an interception off of it. That’s what you want to see.”
-Solomon Thomas owned a one-on-one blocking drill. Going up against Zane Beadles twice, Thomas used an array of techniques to knock the guard back on his heels. He hasn’t stood out as much in the 11-on-11 drills, but Shanahan told reporters it’s going to take some time.
-Trent Baalke holdovers Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold have both been solid to start camp. Lynch has been flying around the edge and reported to training camp weighing 273 pounds, shedding close to 30 pounds. Harold switched his number from 58 to 57 and he’s been active. He tipped another pass Monday and recorded a tackle for a loss. Many had predicted both would be released before the final 53-man cuts, but Lynch and Harold are hanging tight.