This is my Thursday column on George Whitfield Jr.
SANTA CLARA — Something odd happened at the 49ers’ training camp this week.
As you may know, this offseason the 49ers brought in George Whitfield Jr. He tutored Cam Newton and Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel before each quarterback entered the NFL draft.
Whitfield is 36. He runs a quarterback academy he calls Whitfield Athletix. It’s in San Diego. Whitfield has his own website — whitfieldqb.com — where he explains what he does: “Our objective is to take the prospect’s perceived passing weakness and drive it into a strength. This could be a physical transformation such as throwing with more power or touch.”
Whitfield calls himself a Quarterback Engineer. The 49ers call him a summer intern. Last week when training camp started, I requested to interview Whitfield and a member of the 49ers’ public relations staff informed me that they don’t make interns available for interviews.
He is a special intern, I thought.
Then practices started, and it didn’t seem like Whitfield was so special, not the way the 49ers used him.
Take Tuesday. During the first portion of practice, the portion the media is allowed to film, Whitfield was a ball boy. Jim Harbaugh and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst led a quarterback drill right in front of a couple of dozen cameras. It was a progression drill, teaching the quarterbacks how to go from their first read to their second read to their third.
The reads were stationary targets downfield. One of the targets was Donovan “Doc” Dressler, an assistant equipment manager. He was the check-down target. He stood 5 yards away from the quarterback. Whitfield was the deep target. He stood 15 yards away from the quarterback. Every few minutes, Harbaugh pointed to Whitfield and told him to move or to back up. Whitfield ended up 30 yards away from the action.
After this drill, the 49ers started their team drills and the media had to stop recording — house rules. And then something odd happened. The 49ers stopped treating Whitfield like a ball boy.
When the cameras stopped rolling, the intern became the teacher. During a special teams drill, he lined up Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson on the 15-yard line. Chryst stood quietly on the goal line and watched Whitfield work.
Whitfield had the three quarterbacks drop back and throw to the left over and over again. Throwing to the left is one of Kaepernick’s weaknesses — he threw an interception to his left in the NFC championship game against the Seahawks, and almost threw an interception to his left in the Wild Card playoff game in Green Bay, but the Packers’ defender dropped the ball.
As we learned from his website, Whitfield focuses on a quarterback’s weakness and tries to turn them into strengths. Is Whitfield here to improve Kaepernick’s weaknesses? Is that the deal? After Tuesday’s practice, I asked Kaepernick what he works on with Whitfield when the cameras aren’t rolling.
“A lot of different drills,” Kaepernick said, and left it at that. Vague.
To get an answer, I had to go to Harbaugh, the man who brought in Whitfield.
Wednesday morning after his group interview, Harbaugh lingered with me in the hallway outside of the 49ers’ new auditorium.
“The greatest share of what (Whitfield) is doing is on the field with the drills with all of the quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “Then, when the cameras aren’t around, he’s observing in the meeting room with the quarterback group.”
“Does he talk in the meeting room, or is he just observing?” I asked.
“Observing, but there are times that the quarterbacks talk, there are times that George will ask a question, or I will ask George a question, or George will ask Geep a question, or Geep will ask George a question.”
“Why did you want to bring in George?”
“I’ve known George for quite a while. I respect his work. All of my many conversations with him led me to believe that he would benefit from this experience and that the 49ers would benefit from this experience, specifically the quarterbacks. It could be George Whitfield making comments or talking through a technique or asking them what they felt, or it could be me pointing something out to them, or Geep or Greg Roman. Or they could ask Mike Solari a question. Or you could go up to them and suggest something to them. And they process it that quick — does that make sense to them? Does that fit their style? And they will choose to use it or not, or try it or not. I just feel that quarterbacks have a very good way about filtering. So I thought George would have something to add.”
How many interns have something to add to a franchise like the 49ers? Whitfield must be one heck of an intern.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.