Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan praises 49ers’ emerging stars, Elijah Mitchell and Jauan Jennings

Dec 3, 2021 at 8:44 AM--

Everyone knows wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle. They are the stars of the San Francisco 49ers offense. However, to sustain success for the remainder of the season, and hopefully, deep into the playoffs, the Niners will also need to rely on their emerging stars.

One of those surprising emerging stars has been rookie running back Elijah Mitchell, who has turned into the offense's workhorse and become the team's leading rusher.

Mitchell has already had four games with 100-or-more rushing yards. He carried the football 27 times for 133 yards and a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings and is now just 119 yards shy of the franchise record for the most rushing yards by a rookie (Vic Washington, 811 in 1971).

Head coach Kyle Shanahan joined KNBR on Friday morning and explained why Mitchell's impressive play is surprising for a rookie.

"He was very similar in college, and you've always got to see it at a different level," Shanahan explained on the Murph & Mac show. "But even in practice, whether we've got pads on or not, he hits the right hole every time. He's got a very natural running ability where some guys, it's hard for backs to always hit the right hole. Sometimes they're too out of control and going too fast, and they miss something. And sometimes they go too slow to try to look for the right hole, and they miss the bounce outside the numbers. That stuff is very hard to coach.

"It's the most natural part about being a running back, if you can just naturally hit the right hole. It's something Deebo [Samuel] does very well. It's not like anyone's coaching Deebo on how to run. You try to give him good plays, and you try to set his track the right way, but there's a very natural ability to hitting holes, and Elijah has that. And then, when he's gotten into these games, you just see his toughness. You see he's got the talent, but he's also got the mindset.

"He gets stronger, to me, as the game goes. He lowers his head. Whenever the hole is only open for about two yards, somehow, he gets four-and-a-half to five yards. And that allows you to get more calls. That allows you to get more carries and things like that. And it's really made him come off, like you guys are saying, as a workhorse."

Another breakout player is receiver Jauan Jennings, a seventh-round draft pick last year. He could see his role increase against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, with Samuel expected to miss the game.

"You look at Jauan's rookie year, he wasn't ready," Shanahan said. "He just wasn't developed enough to make it right away in that first training camp, especially not having OTAs, and especially not having a real training camp, with COVID. So we put him on [the] practice squad, and he was coming on big-time to where I think would have—especially with the injuries at receiver we had last year—if he would have stayed healthy, I think, by Week 10, he would have been out there. And especially with [Brandon] Aiyuk and Deebo getting hurt, he would have started some games.

"But he ended up ripping his hamstring in practice—I want to say in like Week 7—so he was gone for the whole year after that. And then he came to training camp. I went into training camp thinking he had the best chance to be our third receiver. He missed the first 10 days because of COVID. Then, when he came back, he was a little behind everybody else. [Mohamed] Sanu was playing at a much higher level than him.

"And then he started to make a push. It was around the Chargers week down there that he was making a push on some of the other receivers, and then he got hurt, and he had a setback and missed about two weeks in training camp. And in those two weeks, other guys gained a lot of ground on him, and it took him a while to come back and play at that level again."

By that time, Sanu had already asserted himself as one of the 49ers' most reliable and consistent receivers in Shanahan's eyes. That pushed Jennings down the depth chart. Then a knee injury landed Sanu on injured reserve on November 15.

"And then [Jennings] got the opportunity when [Sanu] went down," Shanahan continued, "and he's taken advantage of it, and he's getting better each week. And hopefully, that will continue."

You can listen to the entire conversation with Shanahan below.

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