SANTA CLARA — Mitch Wishnowsky started his path to the NFL in a park in Western Australia.
After two shoulder surgeries, Wishnowsky had given up the sport of Australian Rules Football at the age of 18, and became an apprentice glazier — a glass installer. Then, while playing American football in what he called a “mess-around, recreational thing” with some of his mates in a park in Perth, Wishnowsky began firing off punts. It was the first time he’d ever seen an NFL ball, and it was counterfeit.
“I’ve always had a big leg, and someone who was there, Craig Wilson, who was obviously into American football, knew Nathan [Chapman] and John [Smith] of Pro Kick Australia,” Wishnowsky said on Thursday, his first introduction to the San Francisco media after being picked in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. “[Wilson] was a coach, and he was very vocal, and we’d give it back to him, but he came up and spoke to us, and sat down and was like, ‘Hey, if you guys ever want to, I could pass your number on.”
Six years later, Wishnowsky stood on a practice field in the shadow of Levi’s Stadium, the newly-signed fourth-round NFL Draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers and the latest NFL kicker to hail from Down Under. The first of six draft picks to sign, Wishnowsky was almost as big an attraction at the 49ers’ first rookie minicamp as No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa.
Watching Wishnowsky bomb punts on a side field, one 49ers vet said, ”He’s kicking the s*** out of the ball.”
He wasn’t the only one taking notice of Wishnowsky’s leg, as there were multiple ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ during special team work, where rookie receiver Deebo Samuel fielded Wishnowsky’s drives.
“I feel like I’ve got good leg strength, and then accuracy,” Wishnowsky said on Thursday. “I feel like I’m consistent at putting it outside the numbers if need be, or sky punts, like short-yardage punts, I’m confident, pinning opponents, stuff like that.”
San Francisco announced the official signings of Dre Greenlaw, Tim Harris, Jalen Hurd, Deebo Samuel and Justin Skule on Friday. They also signed undrafted free agents Azeez Al-Shaair (LB, Florida Atlantic), Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (S, Arizona), Jamell Garcia-Williams (DL, Alabama-Birmingham), Kevin Givens (DL, Penn State), Cameron Glenn (S, Wake Forest), Malik Henry (WR, West Georgia), Tyree Mayfield (TE, Wyoming), Shawn Poindexter (WR, Arizona), Ross Reynolds (OG, Iowa) and UCLA quarterback WIlton Speight, formerly of Michigan.
Bosa, naturally, drew the lion’s share of the media attention for most of practice. Bosa — who has yet to officially sign — was as-advertised. With a narrow waist, quick hands and a broad frame, he was arguably more impressive up close than on film. The get-off, violent hands, arsenal of pass rush moves, the motor, all were there. Dealing with NFL size might be a speed bump, as he had some struggles during one-on-one reps with new teammate and swing tackle Justin Skule, but he hasn’t played football in more than a year. That ability will come. The strength is certainly there.
Watching Bosa, it was hard not to notice new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Easily the loudest on the field, Korucek was aggressive in his praise of Bosa, screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” after one of his drill reps. If he keeps the volume up, a throat lozenge endorsement may be in order. He brings a lot of energy to the post, to say the least.
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Smith said of being picked by San Francisco. “I only talked to the 49ers once, so when they did call, I was super excited.”
Smith attended a 49ers game once while with the Cardinal, when Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas played one another on Sept. 10 of 2017. He was close with Thomas, who has a house in Palo Alto. He trained for the draft in the East Bay, so was a frequent visitor to his former Stanford teammate.
Despite his lack of communication with San Francisco, and only going to one game, he was well aware of what George Kittle did last season. Right after the draft, Kittle texted him to wish him good luck.
“I’m really excited to come in and learn under him, eventually fight for a spot,” Smith said. “Not really sure what my role is yet. I’m just going to go play football, enjoy it, have fun and keep learning.”
Smith looked comfortable in the offense, which bears some similarities in terms of tight end use to Stanford. It was what he expected, having talked with Zach Ertz and Austin Hooper, two other former Cardinal tight ends.
“Some of the same formations, some of the same play calls and comcepts,” Smith said. “It was so far easy to learn … One of the reasons I went to Stanford was the NFL offense, NFL lingo, and a lot of tight ends go into the league and they don’t have a problem learning the new plays or anything.”
Smith hasn’t communicated with the 49ers about where they want him to be weight-wise, but he’s comfortable at 248 pounds.
Along with Smith, former Cal running back Tre Watson — who transfered to Texas for his senior season after tearing his ACL as a junior at Berkeley — was one of the running back tryouts. Watson is known for his versatility, burst, and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He had a nice wiggle and hit the hole hard. Were there not multiple running backs on the roster with his skill set, and NFL experience, he’d be an ideal back in Shanahan’s offense.
Watson’s former Cal teammate, linebacker Alex Funches, was also among the tryouts, as was Stanford corner Alameen Murphy and former Stanford center Jesse Burkett.
The 49ers also added former Golden Bears offensive line coach Zach Yenser as an assistant offensive line coach. Yenser, 35, spent three of the previous four seasons (2015-17) as the run game coordinator/offensive line coach at the University of Kansas. He spent the 2018 season as the offensive line coach at Enterprise (AL) High School. He coached under Sonny Dykes at Berkeley in 2013 and 2014, before leaving to coach under Rob Likens with the Jayhawks.
Mayfield, out of Wyoming, made the catch of the day, adjusting to a ball thrown behind him by making a one-handed grab with his right hand, tucking the ball and turning up field on a slant from Midwestern State quarterback Layton Rabb.
One name to keep an eye on is Florida Atlantic defensive end Hunter Snyder. He has long levers, great size and quick get-off. He had two wins in one-on-one work.