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What Kyle Shanahan looks for from running backs in OTAs

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In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers head coach gave an in-depth explanation of what he wants out of his running backs. Given the questions the running back group has, it is probably good to reset those comments.

The San Francisco 49ers are currently in OTAs and one of the many question marks is the running back depth behind Jerick McKinnon. Kyle Shanahan has said that McKinnon will be the starting running back which leaves a competition right behind him.

The big problem with OTAs is that the players don’t have pads on. Therefore, any practice reports you see can be a bit misleading. Everything changes once the players are in full pads and a helmet. So what is the coaching staff looking for if they can’t evaluate the full product?

Last year, Kyle Shanahan spoke during the 2017 OTAs and gave a great response on what he looks for out of the running backs during OTAs, specifically. Given that we are curious what Joe Williams can do and what he’ll be looking for out of everyone including McKinnon, it felt adequate to look at those comments once more:

“Well, we go pretty hard and there’s guys who play their gaps. You want to see, there’s an art to hitting the right gap and running full speed and going to where the guy and the defense is out of position. I always joke with the backs, I can see it every time when I have a remote in my hand and it’s very slow and I can be, ‘Oh, you should have gone there.’ No one plays running back with a remote in their hand. They just run and it comes natural. So, you try to see who naturally runs to the right spots and there’s guys who aren’t the most flashy running backs to the naked eye, but for some reason they have better yards-per-carry than everyone else does and that’s because they get to the right hole and it’s always four yards, six yards in. Whatever the defense, whatever the offense blocks it for they usually get two more. We try to see who the most natural runners are, who it’s not too big for and their conditioning and how hard they go.”

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have both made it clear that Williams has to step up if he wants to secure a role with the team. Shanahan has made it clear that Williams is in good shape, but instead has to show urgency in his game. However, he also knows there are some limitations on OTA assessments.

“I noticed a couple runs today that flashed. With you asking, there’s two runs in particular that I told him he did a real good job on out there. It’s a little harder with running backs in training camp. There’s no pads on out there. We’re not trying to really run through arm tackles and stuff. We’re trying to go really hard but not hit each other, either. It’s a little tougher with running backs. Those are ones you see a little bit more, we’ll know more when we get to the preseason and put those pads on.”

If OTAs were to end today, it’d be a good guess that the pecking order would be Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert (primarily because of special teams though), and maybe Joe Williams if he can get a role carved out for him. Like we said, it’s hard to gauge running backs without pads, but with what Shanahan says above, we know what he’s looking for when they can’t simulate full contact.