Here’s what stood out to me during practice Wednesday morning.
1. RB Tim Hightower. Hightower split time on the first-team offense with Carlos Hyde – those two have shared reps evenly with the starters all of training camp. And while it’s clear Hyde has more raw talent than Hightower, Hightower still is more comfortable and productive than Hyde in Kyle Shanahan’s system. The offense functions better when Hightower is on the field. Today, he made three big plays: He caught a touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer during a red-zone drill, picked up a first down on second-and-10 with an outside zone run to the left and converted a third-and-five with another 10-yard gain around the left end. And those weren’t even his best plays. His best play was subtle: He took a handoff during an outside zone run to his right and a linebacker met him in the backfield – it seemed Hightower would lose three yards. Without hesitating, Hightower cut upfield behind the tight end, slipped through a tiny hole and gained five yards.
2. RB Carlos Hyde. Hyde was on the field for the first play of practice, but this play didn’t go well for him. It was an outside zone run, and a linebacker cut off him in the backfield – similar to Hightower’s run I described above. But instead of quickly cutting upfield like Hightower did, Hyde tried to reverse his path and cut back – a major mistake in Shanahan’s offense. Hyde stopped, turned around and ran sideways behind the line of scrimmage – right into DeForest Buckner who was waiting for him. Loss of three. Hyde should have turned upfield and gained a yard or two instead of dancing behind the line of scrimmage and losing three. This is why I question Hyde’s fit in Shanahan’s offense. He loses too many yards when he doesn’t have room to run. But when he does have running room, he’s fine, as he showed today. He gained 10 yards untouched around the right end on one play. And he scored a touchdown at the end of practice when he ran up the middle, bounced to the outside and trampled rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon on the way to the end zone. More on that play below.
3. RB Joe Williams. Williams and Hyde have the same issue with the outside zone play – failing to cut upfield when there’s no room to run. But Williams makes a different mistake. Today when a linebacker cut off Williams in the backfield, Williams ran around the linebacker and lost three yards after sprinting out of bounds. Williams needs to be tougher and run into the defense, not away from it. He redeemed himself later when he caught a touchdown pass from C.J. Beathard during a red-zone drill.
4. OT Trent Brown. Brown is an excellent pass-protector, but he needs to prove he’s athletic enough to fit Shanahan’s running game. Shanahan prefers lean offensive linemen who can run, and Brown isn’t lean – he weighs 352 pounds. But today, he showed he can run. During Hyde’s 10-yard carry, which I referenced above, Brown ran in front of Hyde and cleared a path for him. This was the best block of the day.
5. QB Brian Hoyer. Hoyer threw his first interception of training camp after misreading the defense. He was throwing to Jeremy Kerley, who ran a deep out-route and would have been open if the defense was play man to man. But the defense was playing zone coverage, and there was a cornerback standing along the sideline waiting for Kerley when he finished his route. Hoyer threw the pass anyway, and the corner jumped in front of Kerley and made the interception. Hoyer bounced back and played well the rest of practice, completing 16-of-24 pass attempts (67 percent). He has had a very good training camp. I haven’t seen a 49ers QB play this well in camp since Alex Smith. Hoyer is accurate, he throws terrific deep passes, plus he can throw the deep out, which Alex Smith almost never threw. The deep out is the most difficult throw a quarterback can make. The wide receiver runs 12 yards then cuts toward the sideline, and the quarterback has to deliver a long throw before the wide receiver even makes his break or else the ball will arrive after the receiver has run out of bounds. As coaches say, the quarterback has to throw this pass “with anticipation,” meaning he has to anticipate the wide receiver’s break and trust he will be open. Smith hardly ever threw with anticipation. He needed visual confirmation a receiver was open before throwing to him.
6. CB Dontae Johnson. Johnson was the cornerback who intercepted Hoyer. Johnson also broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge was standing by himself when Hoyer threw him the ball. Johnson sprinted across the end zone and slammed into Burbridge just as the ball arrived, knocking Burbridge to the ground and the ball out of his hands.
7. CB K’Waun Williams. Williams, the Niners’ nickel cornerback, might be the best cornerback on the team. He has dominated slot receiver Jeremy Kerley every day of training camp, both in one-on-one drills and team drills.
8. DE Solomon Thomas. Thomas chased down running back Kapri Bibbs from behind and tackled him for a two-yard loss after Bibbs caught a screen pass in the flat. This was the kind of hustle play Justin Smith used to make routinely.
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. DT DeForest Buckner. The best player on the defense sprained his left ankle during team drills. Buckner immediately fell to the ground, then got up and hopped on one foot to the trainer, who taped his injured ankle. Buckner tried to walk off the injury, but it hurt him so much he could only limp, so he watched the rest of practice from the sideline.
2. CB Keith Reaser. Reaser missed practice after hurting his knee yesterday. This injury is troubling because Reaser tore his ACL during college. His knee may never fully recover. The Niners need another corner to step up, someone like…
3. CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the rookie third-round pick will step up now or ever. Witherspoon is passive, he has heavy feet in coverage and he almost never contests a pass. Today, he gave up touchdown catches to Aaron Burbridge and Marquise Goodwin, both of whom ran simple fade routes straight to the back corner of the end zone. You’d think Witherspoon could defend these routes – he’s 6’3”. But he let the passes fly right over his head both times. During team drills, he gave up a 15-yard catch to Pierre Garcon on third-and-10, and committed a holding penalty in the end zone while covering undrafted rookie receiver Victor Bolden. Then at the end of practice, Witherspoon embarrassed himself when he stood flat-footed at the goal line and let Carlos Hyde run him over like a Mack Truck. Witherspoon seemed terrified. A reporter asked defensive coordinator Robert Saleh about that play after practice, and Saleh said, “(Witherspoon) is not a coward by any means.” Not a good sign when a coach has to say his player isn’t a coward.