On Thursday, 49ers rookie punter Mitch Wishnowsky sent a high, spinning, knuckling drive that former Pac-12 punt returner extraordinaire Dante Pettis had great difficulty fielding.
On Friday, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said that Wishnowsky had “a lot of clubs in his bag,” which is to say he’s got a lot of different ways to kick a football. That whirlybird at Pettis? It wasn’t one of them. “That,” Wishnowsky admitted on Friday, “was a bit of a shank.” It was effective, though. “I need to come up with a name for it,” he said with a smile.
Wishnowsky was forced to be versatile as an Australian Rules punter before he came to the United States to try his foot at the American game. With a dizzying array of different boots — among other talents — the fourth-rounder out of Utah may be San Francisco’s most important special teams weapon.
Before training camp, wide receiver Trent Taylor — one of four potential punt returners for the 49ers — called Wishnowsky “filthy.”
“He has some serious hang time,” Taylor said back in June. “I feel like I’m sitting there waiting for it to come down for way too long. Then once you’re there for too long you start overthinking it. That’s what makes him good.”
The 49ers hope Wishnowsky can be as effective as Seattle’s Michael Dickson, the first rookie punter to make a Pro Bowl in 33 years. So far, to watch the group of punt returners — Taylor, Pettis, DJ Reed and Richie James — try and corral Wishnowsky’s shots, he has a chance. Fewer clean catches mean fewer returns, and maybe even the chance to get the ball back on a muff.
“He has balls that he can kick that fall different ways that can give a returner the illusion that it’s going one way and that it will go a different way,” Hightower said.
There’s the banana punt — which drops and dips down to the right — and there’s the spiral left and the spiral right, the low line drive and the big hang time, and a few others he hasn’t named. They depend on the wind, the situation and even the returner.
“There’s loots of different punts you have to be able to do back home playing Aussie football,” Wishnowsky said. “You have to be able to punt on the run, use both feet. There’s ways you can make it curve right or curve left if you’re on a tight angle trying to kick a goal. There’s different ways to manipulate the ball’s flight that you almost have to know as an Aussie Rules footballer.”
Wishnowsky, though, isn’t just a punter. He takes great pride in holding, which he’ll have to do this season for arguably the best kicker in the NFL over the last two years.
When Wishnowsky was drafted, the 49ers had placed the franchise tag on Gould, who had requested a trade. He didn’t sign until just over two weeks ago. That day, he called Wishnowsky, who was working out in Nashville.
“I …missed the call and called him back,” Wishnowsky said. “It was just sort of like, ‘Hey, let’s get to work.’”
The first time they met was the day they reported to camp.
One of the reasons the 49ers made Wishnowsky the highest-picked punter since 2012 was not just his full bag of punting clubs, but the fact that, Hightower said, he was the best collegiate holder he’d ever seen, and one of the best kickers in the NFL needed someone reliable.
While there’s little reason to worry about Wishnowsky’s punting — his record there is sterling — there’s pressure in holding for Gould, whose 72 made field goals and 96.0 field goal percentage over the past two years are the best in the NFL.
“I love holding,” Wishnowsky said. “At the start of my career, it was the most nerve-racking part of the job, but I’ve worked hard on holding and that’s one thing that, you don’t punt every day, but you can hold every day. You don’t need to be fresh to hold. I get a lot of reps at holding. That’s something I take pride in.
“[Gould] basically tells me the way he wants the ball, and other than that, that’s it. He’s not very picky, and he doesn’t miss.”
Wishnowsky does have another talent: He can kick off. In 2017 for Utah, Wishnowsky put 44 of his 65 kickoffs into the end zone, posted a 62.1-yard kickoff average and was 1-of-2 in onside kicks, kicking and recovering an onside kick against Washington. He did not kick off in 2018.
With Bradley Pinion gone, either Gould or Wishnowsky could take kickoff duties. Or both.
Hightower cautioned that Wishnowsky hasn’t kicked off, punted or held in an NFL game, but it’s hard not to think he’ll be doing all three in the first preseason game against Dallas next week.
“Everyone else in the league is going to have to figure out who that guy is going to be, but we know that Robbie is going to do a good job when he kicks off and we know that Mitch is going to do a good job when he kicks off,” Hightower said. “I’m not saying we’re using both of them, I’m saying we can use both of them because we have two guys that can do it.”