Here’s what stood out to me during practice Friday morning.
1. RB Joe Williams. Yesterday, Williams gained 32 yards on four carries. Today, he gained 58 yards on six carries and had his two best runs of the offseason. Both runs came when the quarterback was under center and Williams was in an I-formation. The first run was an inside-zone play. In one fluid motion, Williams took the handoff and cut back behind the right tackle, then sprinted through the defense for a 30-yard gain. Later on third-and-4, Williams took a handoff on an outside-zone play, exploded toward the sideline, turned the corner and gained 20 yards. He made both of these runs seem easy. After practice, Kyle Shanahan praised Williams: “I thought he had his best day yesterday, and then it seemed like today was better than that. I thought he has had two good practices in a row. It takes time for some of these guys. By no means has he arrived with two good practices – that’s why I try not to jump to too many conclusions after each practice, especially with the younger guys. They’ve got to learn the speed of the game.” Williams seems to have learned it. I expect he will excel during the preseason and make a case to be the starting running back.
2. QB Matt Barkley. The 49ers backup quarterback made the best pass of practice – a 30-yard strike which tight end Blake Bell caught between two defenders. Overall, Barkley completed 7 of 10 pass attempts with one interception. Every day, he seems to complete about 70 percent of his throws. He is one of the most underrated players on the roster. If Brian Hoyer were to get injured during the season, I think the offense would function just as well with Barkley at quarterback.
3. QB C.J. Beathard. Beathard mostly threw screen passes, but he also threw a beautiful 25-yard pass to rookie tight end Cole Hikutini. This was Beathard’s best pass of the offseason. He threw it over the head of linebacker Reuben Foster and hit Hikutini in stride.
4. TE Cole Hikutini. Hikutini beat Foster twice – once with a seam route (the play I mentioned above), and once with a quick out route. Hikutini runs and catches like a wide receiver – he’s very smooth. He probably will make the final roster if he plays well during the preseason.
5. WR Trent Taylor. Starting slot receiver Jeremy Kerley sat out practice with a tight hip muscle, so Taylor got to play in the slot extensively with the first-team offense and he was fantastic. He made the best catch of the day when he spun and used just his left hand to catch a pass that was thrown slightly behind him. He also caught a 20-yard pass near the sideline and dragged both feet inbounds before falling to the ground. On both of these catches, Taylor showed terrific body control, which Bill Walsh considered one of the most important qualities a receiver can have. Taylor will become the starting slot receiver eventually, although probably not this season – Kerley is a proven player who has terrific body control, too.
6. DE Arik Armstead. On the second play of practice, Armstead beat two blocks – one by right tackle Trent Brown and one by fullback Kyle Juszczyk – and tackled Carlos Hyde in the backfield. Armstead is having a terrific training camp. He is much more effective against the run at his new position (defensive end) than he was at his old position (defensive tackle).
7. CB Dontae Johnson. I was down on Johnson earlier in training camp, but he has come on big time the past few days. Today, he give up no catches, and broke up a deep pass intended for Trent Taylor. Johnson clearly is one of the best corners on the team. He seems like a lock to be a starter Week 1.
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. RB Carlos Hyde. Ever since Hyde ran through Ahkello Witherspoon this Monday, defenders have been hitting Hyde as hard as they can and tackling him to the ground. I’m guessing defenders feel Hyde showed them up, so they’re showing him up in return. Whether that’s the case or not, I appreciate the defense taking Hyde to the ground because now I can see exactly how many yards he gains every run – I don’t have wonder if he would have broken a tackle. Today, he gained exactly 18 yards on six carries. On one play, he ran into Arik Armstead, then turned around, ran backwards and got tackled for a nine-yard loss. Hyde may be in the best shape of his career, but I still don’t see how he fits this offense.
2. RB Matt Breida. The undrafted rookie running back has played well all offseason – he’s very athletic. But he weighs only 190 pounds. I’m curious to see how he plays during the preseason when defenders can hit him. Today, I got a preview of what might happen. Brieda caught pass over the middle, took a few steps upfield and ran into 193-pound cornerback Prince Charles Iworah, who shoulder-checked Breida onto the ground. The ball flew out of Breida’s hands and Reuben Foster recovered it.
3. LB Reuben Foster. Foster hurt his left leg and stayed down as if the injury was serious. The trainer ran over and examined Foster’s ankle as players crowded around him. After about 15 seconds, Foster jumped up and limped to the sideline. He stood there for a few plays, then ran back on the field and played the rest of practice with a slight limp.