SANTA CLARA — The best play of 49ers camp came late into 11-on-11 drills on Wednesday.
The offense was primed on the goal line, looking to finish off the drill with a score. Carlos Hyde took the ball on a designed run and found rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon between him and the end zone.
It didn’t end well for Witherspoon.
Hyde lowered his pads and put the defensive back squarely on his behind in a play that could’ve come directly out of NFL Madden when the game was hyping its truck-stick feature.
General Manager John Lynch expressed some uncertainty about Witherspoon’s ability to make the tough plays — and adjust to the physicality of the NFL — when he drafted him in the third round this spring.
But Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh isn’t worried about Witherspoon just yet, even if he did get caught by a veteran with his head down.
“[Witherspoon is] not a coward by any means,” Saleh said. “He will get in there, he will tackle.”
To be fair to Witherspoon, it wasn’t a tackling drill, and he wasn’t allowed to get low on Hyde — the only way Saleh reckons the DB could tackle the running back — but it did exhibit how valuable the former Ohio State Buckeye can be.
Hyde is one of the only bright spots from the offense last year, but the question — and it’s one of the most interesting surrounding 49ers’ camp — will remain until it doesn’t: How does Hyde fit in a Kyle Shanahan offense?
So far, it’s been pretty good. The Niners could be a team with a deep running back corps capable of attacking defenses in a number of ways. In other words, Shanahan’s vision is being realized earlier than the Faithful could’ve reasonably hoped.
“[Hyde] knows what we’re trying to do, and I think he sees the opportunity ahead of him, too,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said. “He’s in the right scheme. Kyle knows how to run the ball.”
Hyde and Tim Hightower won’t compare to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — Shanahan’s former backfield weapons in Atlanta — but the offense should be varied and impressive in the head coach’s first season in Santa Clara.
Hyde should get ample opportunity to prove himself, and land a large contract elsewhere next year, in his last season under contract with the 49ers.
D-line gets awkward
The Niners have used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman in each of their last three drafts.
Despite crossing two front-office regimes, they’ve all shared a similar characteristic: They’re tall.
It created issues for the 49ers offense on Wednesday when Arik Armstead and his 6-foot-7 frame were disruptive rushing off the edge.
Combined with DeForest Buckner (6’7), the 49ers will offer a unique challenge for opposing offensive lines.
“They’re just so different than what a guard sees week in and week out, and it’s hard to simulate,” Saleh said. “Then, all of a sudden, here comes this 6-foot-7, powerful, great leverage, great fundamental technique, great hands, and he’s just awkward to block.”
Being awkward is what tall guys do best. It’d really benefit the 49ers to utilize that in their favor.
The 49ers had the worst defense in the league in 2016. They were embarrassed on a near weekly basis after limiting the anemic Los Angeles Rams offense in the season opener. That led then-defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to limit the playbook in hopes of getting the unit working together.
It didn’t work.
This season, the new coaching staff is hoping that starting with a pared-down playbook will do the trick. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks said the coaching staff is using just 10 different defensive play calls when, in years past, players have been expected to run up to 25.
If the past two seasons taught us anything, having 11 guys on a different page makes for pathetic football.
Fixing that would be a welcome departure from the past, which should be the 49ers’ whole theme of training camp.