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49ers Notebook: McKinnon gets back on field, Shanahan has surprisingly high praise for Bourne

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA – Jerick McKinnon took the field on Tuesday. It was only his first time doing so in, oh, 11-plus months. The day was understandably meaningful for him, despite the lack of contact.

“Great feeling” for McKinnon to be back

While there was no contact for McKinnon today – the 49ers had him “on air,” as they say – he caught a few passes and got some basic ball carrying drills in.

McKinnon acknowledged that the “competitor” in him probably wants to take things a little bit faster than the 49ers medical staff will allow for, but said that he wants to ensure he keeps things “smooth” and doesn’t rush any parts of the process in his ramp-up to real action.

While McKinnon said his approach is day-to-day, he did say he was “confident” that he could play in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. More than anything, he was appreciative of being back on the field.

“It was just a great feeling to be back out there,” McKinnon said. “I’ve been off rehabbing for 11 months and a couple days, so it really hits you when you have something that you love taken away from you. So every little thing was exciting for me today.”

Head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t say whether the 49ers were planning to get McKinnon in a preseason game, as the plan is to ease him back into action.

“We were just glad to have him out [there],” Shanahan said. “I know he probably had a lot of butterflies getting out for the first time, but we only let him go on air. He was just able to do individual and stuff like that. We’ll watch it again on the tape when we get in and evaluate it, but he’s been looking good for a little bit now on air. It’s nice to get pads out there and get him with the team since he’s off PUP now and he’ll be in walk-through this afternoon and we’ll keep doing it day by day and hopefully sooner than later we’ll get him out there in some team drills.”

Shanahan with surprising praise for Bourne, while criticizing wide receiver group

On Sunday, Kyle Shanahan made it clear that no one in the 49ers’ wide receiver group had separated themselves from the rest of the pack.

“No, not to me,” Shanahan said. “There’s days, there’s days that you can see one guy, but to separate yourself, you’ve got to do it day in and day out and I’m still waiting for that.”

Then on Tuesday, he reaffirmed that, with a definitively harsher tone, when asked about mistakes made by Jalen Hurd and Deebo Samuel.

“Sometimes you pick them up and sometimes you’ve got to get on them,” Shanahan said. “But, it’s not just the rookie receivers, it’s the veterans too. I mean [WR Dante] Pettis made a good play and caught a first down and then he fumbled it. So, there’s a number of guys out there and we need that group to step up. We have some ability in that group, but the consistency isn’t there. Of course with rookies, but also the vets too. I’m expecting all those guys to do better and they all need to pick it up.”

Shanahan said this on the same day in which Kendrick Bourne made one first-down catch before dropping a deep pass which he bobbled into the hands of Ahkello Witherspoon for Jimmy Garoppolo’s first interception of camp. Shanahan then praised Bourne when asked about whether his energy ever needs to be toned down.

“No, definitely not,” Shanahan said. “He smiles no matter what, he’s running around no matter what and he’s come a long way. We’ve always liked KB, he’s got real strong hands and plays very hard. Being in the same offense now going into his third year, it’s been a lot easier to move him around and stuff, but he’s having a hell of a camp and we really enjoy him here.”

A reporter followed up with Shanahan, asking why it was fair to describe Bourne as, “… having a hell of a camp,” to which Shanahan said Bourne’s improved in an outsized way compared to other players.

“Because he is,” Shanahan said. “KB always works, but you can tell it was different this time. He didn’t leave at all in his 40 days away. I can see he’s stronger. I can see he’s in better shape. I can see he’s more locked in. I always like to see how much room they gain on the other people while they are gone and KB made big jumps compared to some other guys and it’s showing on the field and he deserves it.”

The praise of Bourne is surprising because of how underwhelmed Shanahan seems to be with his receiving group. It’s too early in camp, especially with a group of probably four guys competing for two roster spots, to read too much into his praise of Bourne, especially before a single preseason game has been played; he, Jordan Matthews, Trent Taylor and Richie James Jr. are all in the mix, with Taylor seeming likely to make the roster based on his connection with Garoppolo, and Bourne and Matthews seeming the two most likely to fight for the final spot despite a strong showing so far from James.

Even if you take that long view, it was undeniably odd that Shanahan was so high on Bourne on a day in which he made a massive mistake that turned a sure, 20-plus-yard completion into a well-returned turnover (see below) and Shanahan was so harsh on the group as a whole:

It’s especially odd with the way that Shanahan and the 49ers have tended to hold back on praise at such an early point in camp. Bourne, to his credit, looked rock-solid in 1-on-1s in the red zone on Tuesday, beating D.J. Reed and Emmanuel Moseley in those drills fairly easily for a pair of would-be touchdowns in that situation. But the praise struck on odd chord when he turned a good drive with Garoppolo into an interception for Witherspoon.

Speaking of Witherspoon…

Ahkello Witherspoon comes back strong after missing a pair of practices

He looked great today, after missing two days of practice with what was termed a glute issue. He came back in fine form on Tuesday. In 1-on-1s, he broke up the first pass to Marquise Goodwin, did the same on his next rep against Chris Thompson (before being beaten by him on the ensuing rep), then broke up a pass versus Malik Henry. He snuck that interception away from Bourne, and looked astute and effective in coverage.

Witherspoon, before that minor issue, was having a solid camp and is firmly up against Jason Verrett for the second starting corner spot. Shanahan acknowledged the success Witherspoon was having, and called for continued improvement.

“From what I saw, I mean, he had a good pick that got him out of a drive,” Shanahan said. “Their backs were against the wall and we sailed a ball over the receivers’ head and he made a good job on that pick that ended it. It looked like he jumped in there in one-on-ones and was competing. I’ll have to see when I get the tape, but Ahkello was playing as well as he’s played since he got here before that injury. Then he had his first practice back today. From what I saw it seemed good, I’ll watch more in a second. But, we needed him to keep getting better and he was on his way before that injury and I’ve got to make sure that he doesn’t have a setback with this.”

Final Notes:

  • Niles Paul retired from the NFL today, just four days after he was waived by the 49ers. Paul said his body simply could not take the wear of another training camp:

  • Hurd v. Sherman: While Jalen Hurd had a fantastic day in 11-on-11s, going 4-for-4 on catches in his four targets, three of which were first downs, he was forced to against Richard Sherman in 1-on-1s in the red zone and… it did not go well. Sherman locked down Hurd twice on fade routes in the corner. It seemed like a matchup in which the 49ers were testing Hurd to see if he could indeed become the dynamic red zone threat he believes he can be, against a top corner. While it didn’t go well for Hurd, having preparation against Sherman isn’t the worst plan to develop his skillset.
  • Kyle Shanahan confirmed what he said on KNBR, that he is “definitely planning on” having Jimmy Garoppolo play in the second and third preseason games against the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs
  • Mike Person had a vet day today and Dee Ford is still out with knee tendinitis, something which seems like it could linger for a while, with the 49ers probably not in a hurry to get him, a more-than proven player, back early in the preseason

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