© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — Joe Williams has had quite the up-and-down career for a second-year player.
Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Kyle Shanahan said he would “be sick” if the 49ers did not draft the Utah product, according to Sports Illustrated. John Lynch was hesitant to draft Williams because he abruptly quit football to mourn the loss of his sister, before eventually returning to Utah. Shanahan talked Lynch into acquiring Williams, and the 49ers scooped him in the fourth-round, expecting the fleet-footed back to complement the hard-nosed Carlos Hyde as San Francisco’s 1-2 punch.
It did not go that way. Williams suffered a minor foot injury that sent him to the season-ending injured reserve list prior to the 2017 season. Matt Breida, a former undrafted free agent, became the rookie running back who assumed that No. 2 role.
Fast forward a year later, and Williams is competing for a roster spot. He helped his early prospects Saturday, providing the highlight of the practice when he turned a toss sweep through a hole and upfield for a long touchdown. The play flashed the type of high-end speed — Williams ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at last year’s NFL Combine— that galvanized Shanahan more than a year ago.
“He didn’t flinch, he hit it and had some pretty good results for it,” Shanahan said after Saturday’s practice. “You hope he can feel that and give him some confidence and continue to build off of it.”
Williams’ physical traits have never been the issue. Last year, Williams did not attack training camp with the mindset or motivation Shanahan expected out of a rookie. The 49ers head coach hoped Williams’ second training camp would go differently.
“I think Joe has got a lot of ability, and it’s been very apparent that he has had a different mindset this year than he did last year,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, that just takes time.”
At this point, Williams faces an uphill battle to supplant Breida at the No. 2 spot. It has not helped Williams that Breida has had a terrific opening days of camp. During 11-on-11 drills Saturday, Breida was prominently featured as he alternated reps with McKinnon on the first-team. On one play, Breida dusted safety Adrian Colbert on a quick slant for a 10-yard gain.
Shanahan said he saw Breida’s confidence grow as the 2017 season progressed. The coaching staff’s confidence in him grew, too. The Georgia Southern product rushed at least 11 times in four of the final five games after going the first 11 weeks without a double-digit single-game rush total. In the final two contests, Breida compiled 23 carries for 146 yards. He also broke out a 32-yard reception in Week 17.
“You could tell when he came back here in the offseason and he came back with a different confidence,” Shanahan said. “He took care of himself, worked hard in the offseason, was great in OTAs, and the 40 days we were away, he even worked harder and was even more ready to go when we got back. He’s been pretty impressive these three days.”
The 49ers have several similarly fast, shifty backs that can platoon out of the backfield. But the No. 3 position doesn’t always necessarily feature the third-best runner. That spot is occasionally reserved for a standout special-teamer, which fits Raheem Mostert, one of the team’s top gunners, better than Williams.
Shanahan will ultimately have to decide which style he wants at that No. 3 spot: an electrifying runner with little special teams value or an inferior runner with standout special teams skills.
“Usually, that third running back is one of your better special teams players just because of the type of body he has and things like that,” Shanahan said. “But also, you get one running back in the game hurt, and if he’s a special teams running back and that’s all he is, it’s going to be hard to win the game if you need to use him as a running back.”
Foreign place, foreign scheme
It’s no secret that Shanahan’s offensive scheme is one of the most innovative in the NFL. His play-calling talent was a major reason why Richard Sherman agreed to sign with the 49ers. The three-time first-team All-Pro cornerback game-planned against Shanahan’s offenses with Seattle and was introduced to completely foreign concepts.
So, you can imagine what it’s like for a newcomer to grasp them.
Rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey, who has earned rave reviews from coaches and teammates praising his intelligence, is one of those who have had to adapt.
“The biggest thing from last year in college to this year is a lot of different language,” McGlinchey said. “In terms of the base concepts, I have done all of the stuff we are required to do before, it’s just a matter of the different adjustments and different defensive structures that you see are a lot different than what you see in college.”
The same goes for McKinnon, who spent the first four years of his career with Minnesota before joining the 49ers this offseason.
“When I first got here, I was lost,” McKinnon said Thursday. “My head was spinning. The different protections I got to learn, different concepts I got to learn, and basically I got to take my whole old way of thinking that I was doing for four years and switch it up into a new one.”
Odds and ends
The presence of pads in Saturday’s practice was music to linebacker Reuben Foster’s ears. That was obvious during 1-on-1 coverage drills, when he tackled running back Jeff Wilson on consecutive plays.
Here is Reuben Foster during coverage drills. Looks like he’s glad pads are involved again pic.twitter.com/H4dsqHAVIT
— Brad Almquist (@bradalmquist13) July 28, 2018
Foster’s all-out, sideline-to-sideline, ultra-physical style of play is both a blessing and a curse. While the perennial Pro Bowl potential is undeniable, he is focusing on harnessing his aggression. Foster has worked with 49ers inside linebackers coach and two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who wants Foster to eliminate leading with his head and shoulders on tackles while using his hands better.
As for other training camp related notes…
-Jimmy Garoppolo’s lone consistent weakness has been his long-ball. He struggled with it again in an otherwise solid showing Saturday, fluttering two deep throws short of Marquise Goodwin. C.J. Beathard also missed a wide-open Dante Pettis in what would have been a sure touchdown.
-Garoppolo’s best throw of the day was zipped between a couple 49ers defenders to Aaron Burbridge. Garoppolo’s quick release and accuracy on short-to-intermediate throws has been impressive throughout summer.
-The more McKinnon practices, the more he looks like a perfect fit for this offense, particularly in the passing game. Each day, it seems he makes an oncoming linebacker or safety in coverage look foolish with his quickness. On Saturday, McKinnon blew by linebacker Brock Coyle on a slant before turning upfield for a big gain.
-Rookie linebacker Fred Warner is mostly praised for his excellent pass coverage skills. But he showed excellent run pursuit today when he laid out Wilson — who clearly bore the brunt of padded practices Saturday — on an outside run.
-The 49ers will practice again Sunday morning before taking Monday off.