SANTA CLARA — The smell of the turf, the sound of the huddle and the friendly banter during team stretches.
Beyond his ability to catch passes and take handoffs in the backfield, these were the things that 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon missed the most during the near-callander year he’s been away from the game of football.
“I’ve been off rehabbing for 11 months and a couple of days,” McKinnon said. “I really hits you when you have something you love taken away from you. Every little thing was exciting for me today.”
After spending the majority of the last year recovering from a torn ACL suffered on the final day of training camp in 2018, McKinnon made his much anticipated to the field after being taken off the physically unable to perform list on Tuesday. Still easing back into the speed and flow of the game, McKinnon is optimistic that he’ll be ready for Week 1 of the regular season.
“It’s great to be back out there,” McKinnon said after his first practice since last September. “When my name is called I’ll definitely be ready to go.”
McKinnon’s roller coaster ride in San Francisco began in March, 2018, when the 49ers signed the former Minnesota Viking to a four-year, $30 million deal. Naturally, after acquiring McKinnon, head coach Kyle Shanahan was eager to get his new, dual-threat back involved within his offense.
After the success Shanahan found in Atlanta as their offensive coordinator by using both DeVonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman out of the backfield as both ball carriers and pass catchers, he looked to use McKinnon in the same fashion.
“Last year, he was going to be a huge part of the offense,” Shanahan said. “We knew we wanted to get a running back for sure, but we also wanted to get a receiver also, who could help in the pass game… We feel like we kind of got the best of both worlds.”
The hype surrounding McKinnon was shut down before the regular season, however, after the back suffered a non-contact knee injury on the final play of practice on Sep. 1.
What transpired next was 11 months of rehabilitation to regain the strength and range of motion in his right knee once more.
Alongside McKinnon was 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who also suffered an ACL tear, just three weeks into the regular season. Just four weeks apart in their recovery timetable, the pair used each other to propel themselves through their respective injuries.
“Things that work for him, I just tried to ask him and that will give me an answer for what I need to do,” McKinnon said. “It’s definitely been encouraging to see him out there after seeing him go through so much to battle back as well.”
While Garoppolo was cleared for the contact in late July, the same could not be said for McKinnon after the 26-year-old experienced a setback shortly before San Francisco was scheduled to begin training camp.
Called a “flair up” by Shanahan, McKinnon’s re-aggravation of the knee forced him to watch practice from the sidelines.
“It was a little frustrating because I wanted to be back out there for the first day,” McKinnon said. “But at the same time, this is a process.”
On Tuesday, eight practices into San Francisco’s training camp, McKinnon was back, padded up and in the same stretching lines that he longed for during his time away from the field.
Jumping around, energized to simple be back in the fold with his teammates, McKinnon was hard-pressed to restrain himself from over-exerting the still compromised knee.
While he was held out of full-team activities, McKinnon was able to participate in individual and and walk-through drills. In an ironic twist, the first play that McKinnon was a part of was a screen pass, the same style of play that resulted in a torn ACL last year.
“I know he probably had a lot of butterflies getting out for the first time,” Shanahan said. “But we only let him go on air.”
As of right now, the 49ers plan to keep McKinnon out of harm’s way by restricting him from 11-on-11’s and one-on-one drills. For San Francisco, the fear of their running back having his knee hit or rolled up is the reasoning behind the move.
McKinnon, while sticking to this plan, says he’s chomping at the bit to finally be unleashed. In fact, he’s already without a knee brace, unlike Garoppolo who still wears his each and every practice.
“I don’t need it… There’s no need to wear it,”McKninnon said. “I don’t plan on wearing in during the regular season so no need to wear it right now.”
Speaking of the regular season, despite only having one month to prepare for it, McKinnon and the 49ers are cautiously optimistic that he’ll be ready to go in Week 1 when San Francisco takes on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I think there’s enough time, but that depends on how things go,” Shanahan said. “That’s why you always try to avoid setbacks. That’s why we’re easing him in slowly. That’s what we’ve done here these last two weeks and even though he’s off PUP now we’ll continue to do the same thing.”