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Richard Hightower credits unheralded signing for improved special teams play

The 49ers special teams coach credited Mark Nzeocha for the team’s improved return defense.

49ers linebacker Mark Nzeocha celebrates

The 49ers special teams have been a source of frustration throughout the season. On top of erratic kicking production from Mitch Wishnowsky and Robbie Gould, the Niners have surrendered several inexcusable big plays. However, in last week’s win over the Texans, the 49ers special teams looked to be trending in the right direction.

Kickoff and punt coverage has been an area of struggle for the 49ers this season, but Houston could not find much success in their return game. Three of the Texans’ five kickoff returns failed to surpass their own 20-yard line, and their only somewhat lengthy return came off a 52-yard punt by Wishnowsky.

In his weekly press availability, 49ers special teams coach Richard Hightower discussed the impact of recent acquisition Mark Nzeocha, who was signed to the team’s practice squad on December 29th and activated for their matchup against the Texans. In his first game of 2021, Nzeocha recorded two tackles and, according to Hightower, made a significant difference on several plays.

Here are Hightower’s full comments on Nzeocha:

“It’s been awesome having him back around. He’s a pro’s pro. A familiar face, familiar with our system. Still a guy that’s got really good speed, really smart, really physical player. He helped free up a lot of guys last week so that’s kudos to the guys in the personnel department keeping their eyes on [Nzeocha]... He was definitely really helpful last week. He had 2 tackles and an assist and freed up a lot of other guys as well. It’s good for him to come off the street and make two tackles and an assist.”

Nzeocha might be a familiar name to Niners fans. He has played in at least one game with the 49ers in each of the past five seasons but had remained an unrestricted free agent ever since the 49ers declined a team option on Nzeocha’s contract after last season. Nzeocha has recorded 42 tackles, primarily on special teams, in 55 games in his career.