SANTA CLARA — Day 6 was by far the most physical day of 49ers training camp, and Kyle Shanahan wanted it just that way.
Undrafted safeties Lorenzo Jerome and Chanceller James, trying to prove themselves, were leveling ball carriers to the turf. Vance McDonald rammed through Ahkello Witherspoon near the goal line. Eric Reid returned from his ankle injury and was flying around. The cracking of pads was happening on nearly every play
“I want them to turn it up a little bit,” Shanahan said minutes after practice. “I was trying to get the idea of how we want to practice — how to be physical but still not take people to the ground. I thought they did a better job of that today.”
One reason why this 49ers training camp has a different feel to it: weight loss. Players have said shedding pounds has given the team more endurance. Shanahan and John Lynch required several key members of the team to come back weighing as light as they ever have in the NFL. Arik Armstead lost 15 pounds, Aaron Lynch shed 25, Carlos Hyde got as low as 224 pounds. Gargantuan right tackle Trent Brown got in on the action. Even a seasoned pro like Ahmad Brooks was asked to drop five pounds.
Those who have been around the 49ers organization for a couple seasons have noticed a dramatic change. Chip Kelly’s system was fast, but he didn’t require the players to be in shape quite like this.
“I feel like overall, endurance-wise, our team is at a level we haven’t been at,” McDonald said. “They want you to be able to look the same on the 75th play as you do on the first play. (And) In terms of just intensity, that’s going to come from guys being able to go harder and longer. Like even there at the end of practice, we we’re still banging and it was well into it.”
The trickle down impact of a more explosive football team is a ratcheted up practice. McDonald said Shanahan has done a solid job of making training camp feel more like games. In the last two days, some periods of 11-on-11’s have been unscripted. The offense is trying to drive the length of the field on the defense, both units are making substitutions and penalties are called by refs. The next day in the meeting room, Shanahan declares winners of these scrimmages in front of the team, raising the stakes considering how many roster spots are up for grabs.
“It’s much more game-like, game-feel,” McDonald said. “You’re just out there and are like, ‘Holy smokes. This really is a 13-play drive.’ You don’t get a lot of opportunities to do that, and get real kind of game-like situation stuff in practice.”
It’s Shanahan’s mandate to have a lighter football team, but strength coach Ray Wright deserves much of the credit. Players have said he’s created more of a college atmosphere with innovative workouts. The massive hill next to the practice field is the latest example of Wright and the 49ers trying to push the boundaries. Players have said Wright has been much more involved in picking out dietary supplements and specific training regimens.
Here’s the rest of what happened Thursday:
-Carlos Hyde caught five passes in 11-on-11 drills and has been one of the best 49ers players during training camp. Talk of cutting him seems laughable. He’s treated training camp practices like they are regular season games. Exhibit A: running over an unsuspecting Ahkello Witherspoon. There will be pressure on him to perform once the regular season begins, but Hyde’s been mostly terrific six days into camp. If he displays hands like that in September, he could actually receive a big bag of cash as a free agent in 2018.
-NaVorro Bowman and Brock Coyle sat out of practice, giving Reuben Foster his first-ever regular reps with the starting unit. The rookie deflected a pass at the line and was used as a blitzer, forcing two errant throws on his pressures. Foster’s problem? Malcolm Smith has been everywhere in training camp and was disruptive in the running game on Thursday. Those two might platoon at WILL linebacker for the first part of 2017.
-Inside linebacker is sneakily the best position on the roster. Ray-Ray Armstrong added an interception and seems like a lock for the 53-man roster. Coyle is a highly-regarded special-teamer. Foster’s potential might be the highest on the team. And of course Bowman is as consistent as they come.
-Another strong day from Brian Hoyer, who found Marquise Goodwin for a 45-yard gain. Reporters charted Hoyer going 17-for-22. Again, his accuracy is arguably the biggest change about this football team. The Hoyer-Goodwin pairing has been as close to lethal as you can get for training camp.
-McDonald has looked like the most consistent tight end so far in camp. Unless he shows nothing in the preseason, it would be hard to imagine cutting him. Cole Hikutini has quieted down after a strong performance on Monday. George Kittle is assumed to be the only roster lock at the position.
-Jed York continues to be a constant figure at practice. He was barely visible last year under Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke.