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Richard Hightower talks Trent Sherfield, Taybor Pepper, excitement about 49ers’ special teams

Aug 3, 2021 at 3:23 PM--

San Francisco 49ers special teams coordinator Richard Hightower spoke with reporters after training camp practice today. Here is everything he had to say.

Transcript provided by the San Francisco 49ers Communications staff.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan just said that you kind of stood on the table for WR Trent Sherfield. What did you like about him? Why did you want to bring him in?

"That's an easy one because we've been playing against Trent. So I appreciate your question. He's one we've been playing against him, having to block him, having to just deal with him in Arizona and him being available. He's a really good player on special teams. I hear he's a good wideout as well. And he wanted to come here and prove that, and he wants to take every opportunity he can to come out and show that he belongs. And really what's crazy about that is you always respect the player from afar, but he's a guy that's in here at 5:30 every morning, that's in the steam room, taking care of his body. He's in the sauna. He does extra. He's a pros pro, he's bringing guys along. There is no secret. Now being around the guy, he fits right into our culture and we're really happy to have him."

Kyle said you had to kind of let him know that, hey, this guy can play receiver a little bit. How do you tap into resources and do you have to be aware of like, hey, I need to sell them a little bit more on something?

"I can't take credit for that. [director of pro personnel] RJ [Gillen] and [general manager] John [Lynch] and their staff, they do a hell of a job with looking at all the offensive tape and all that. I don't watch any of that stuff. So I'm so focused on special teams and what we need to do on special teams, but RJ and those guys that they work with, they watch the tape along with [offensive coordinator] Mike McDaniel and those guys felt comfortable enough to bring him in and let him work as a receiver as well. And he's here to prove that he can play receiver too. He's kind of got that chip on his shoulder, you know? So we liked that. We need him to play receiver. We need him to play special teams. We need him to play everything he can play to help this team."

How many special teams is he on and what is his forte?

"Yeah, he's on all four. I mean, he's on the big four, which are punt, kickoff, punt return and obviously kickoff return and he's on all four of those. And he starts on all four of those right now. And he's trying to prove that he can keep that starting spot. And we've got other guys in the room trying to push him, but, he's a delight to coach. He's a joy to coach and I'm really glad he's here just because other young guys can take a look at him and see, oh, that's what a pro looks like. And those are the kind of guys John and Kyle continue to bring around here, which makes it fun to coach around here."

What's your punt return? What are your options there? WR Brandon Aiyuk mentioned he would love to return punts. What are your options there and is he one of them?

"Yeah, we're hoping that he can prove that he can be that guy, on a consistent basis. We got really good competition there with Brandon, [WR] Richie James, isn't going to go easy. [WR] River Cracraft is working his tail off. [WR Mohamed Sanu Sr.] Mo Sanu who is a veteran who's been around the league and has returned punts is back there working every day. And [WR] Travis Benjamin is the only kid in the room our only man in the room that has four punt return touchdowns in this league, which is hard to do. So it's a really group. They're all fighting, they're all working. And then, you know, they brought [WR Nsimba] Webster in here as well, Simba. So we'll see, you know, but I'm hopeful that Brandon can prove that he belongs as the number one guy, but he has to prove that every day, just like every other player has to prove it."

Is there maybe like a scenario where you have multiple guys to choose from, maybe depending on the game situation?

"Yeah. More guys, the more guys you have is always better for me. But I mean, I think with any coach would say, hey, I'd love to have as many players as you could have. But it's not where it's a situational thing or anything like that. It just depends on if he's our guy, he's our guy. He's got to prove it. You know? And obviously all of that stuff goes through the head coach. And we talk all the time and Brandon's working his tail off and hopefully he can get that job. We'll see, hopefully Richie won't let him take it or River or whoever thinks that they're the starter right now. I told them they're all on an even slate and whoever proves it, you get it."

S Talanoa Hufanga said he wanted to become a Pro Bowler in special teams. What have been your early impressions?

"That's a lofty goal. And that's a good goal. And I like his attitude. I like his mindset. I can tell you, he has a Pro Bowl mentality in the meeting room. And he asks questions. To make the Pro Bowl as a rookie is a huge goal. And I want them to have that goal. I want him to make it, but at the same time, it's the first day of pads. So you know, it's his first day in pads. He did a nice job out there. There are some things he needs to clean up as well, but we want to talk about a delightful person, he is a delightful person and he can run and he can hit. So he's going to have a chance to help us. And we're hoping that he can help us. I know he'll help us, but we'll see how much. And if he can get how close he can get to his goal, if that answers your question."

Last year you made the change to LS Taybor Pepper at longsnapper and you re-signed him in the offseason. What did you like about how he progressed as the season went on and made you want to keep him around?

"Well, Pep had come in for a couple of workouts. And when he won the job in that workout and that particular workout, he had one of the best days that I've ever seen a snapper have in a workout. And then he was here for a couple of games and he just got better and better. You know, he got more comfortable with the system. He got more comfortable with the calls, his feet got better, his snaps got better and he just worked his tail off. So really he earned it, like he earned it. And that's what's so great about this organization, because if you put in the work, as you guys know, they will try their best if they can to make sure that guys are taken care of and shown that they're appreciated. And he's been working his tail off this offseason. I'll tell you what's really cool about him is once he got the contract, I called him to congratulate him obviously. And then his first response was now it's time to go to work. I've got to get better. I've got to prove that I'm deserving of it. And he's worked like that in the offseason and he's worked like that every day."

When you say it was the best workout you've ever seen from a longsnapper, what does that mean?

"You've been doing this a long time, no Pep, you look on short snaps, you look for strings and see if you get laces. The kickers like the laces to be facing out and on all of his snaps, he was perfect. He was 100-percent on laces. So that was unbelievable. I think he had 10 or 12 snaps in all of them. We either want them between 10 and two. If you looked at a clock, you want them between 10 and two, if you can, his were dead on, all of them. And it was just really impressive. And then in his punt, his punt snaps were really good. They were really good. He didn't have any off-target snaps and he got his feet back and he showed he could protect. So that's why he won that competition that day."

You were asked about Sherfield, Hufanga, it seems like there are a lot of guys that have potential to be special teams standouts on the team. Are you excited this year because of the personnel you can put out there, the prospects are really good?

"I'll answer that twofold. I'm excited for the guys that we have now, but what I'm really excited about is the guys that we've had in the past, like [RB] Raheem [Mostert], Dre Greenlaw, [CB] Emmanuel Moseley, [LB] Azeez [Al-Shaair], all these guys have gotten in position to now where they're playing more offense and defense, and now becoming leaders of the team. So what does that do? That opens up more area for guys that you were talking about, the Hufangas, the [RB Elijah] Mitchells, some of these new guys that we have, and our room is all about growth. We want to grow. We want them to come in. We want them to play well on teams. We want them to be offensive and defensive starters, if not here, if you take an example of a guy like [Buffalo Bills RB] Matt Breida go lead the league in rushing and then go somewhere else and do it as well. So he was a good player for us as well. So that's what our room is about, developing people. And I'm really excited about the next young group of guys we got. And then we'll see, time will tell. One practice in pads. We haven't played any games, but I'll guarantee you this, they see a lot of film on tape of Raheem Mostert, of Dre Greenlaw making plays, of Emmanuel Moseley making plays, of Azeez making plays. They have examples. So now the ball's in their court to go out and see if they can live up to our standard, because our standard is high around here and it's not going to change."

What type of improvement have you seen from P Mitch Wishnowsky and what are your expectations of him?

"The thing about Mitch is he is a joy to coach. Mitch's a guy that we don't have to worry about when he's away from here because he always comes back better than he was when he left. Obviously you guys can see the obvious improvement from year one to year two, but our whole room is about improvement. Our whole punt team was here this offseason during OTAs. They were all here trying to get better. And as the team improves, as the coverage guys improve, as the protection improve, then everybody improves. And that goes for all of us. I'm not excluded from that either. We all have to improve and we're pushing each one of them each and every day. So the better the snaps are on field goal, the better Mitch is on field goal holds, the better [K] Robbie [Gould] is on kicks. You know, so they're all working and they all need to improve. And I've been really delighted for all the improvement that we've seen thus far. But again, it's early, you know? And we've just got to keep working stacking days, each day, you've got to stack a day and be better than 31 other teams. That's what I tell them in the meeting."

CB Ambry Thomas and CB Elijah Mitchell both returned punts in college. Are they in the running or either of them in the running? And do they have to earn your trust?

"They both have, Elijah has some kick return experience. Ambry has more than Elijah. They're both in the running. As well as the other guys that we have back there that you see at practice, all those other guys are back there. Richie James is back there. Kevin White's back there. Aiyuk's back there. Deebo's back there. They all work. Everybody works. And whoever wins the job, maybe it's Mitchell. Maybe it's Richie. Maybe it's, I don't pass out anything. So to answer your question, yeah, they need to develop the trust, but I just let them go and then I see who does this and who does that? And the good thing is the players will tell you. I don't have to make that decision. They make it for us."


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