Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower Press Conference

Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower

Press Conference – August 11, 2021

San Francisco 49ers

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With the punt returner, how do you evaluate what you want to do with that spot?

“When we look at the punt returner, first of all, we look at if they’re giving the ball back to the offense. So the main priority is to catch the ball first. We want to secure the football, get it back to the offense and see if we can’t get 10 yards. Get a first down first and then whatever else you get after that is gravy on top. And we want to take it to the house, obviously, all the time, but we’ve got to secure the football and we’ve got to take it. We’ve got to get it 10 yards. When I’m evaluating them, I’m looking to see if they’re catching the ball square or they’re catching it going forward, or are they catching the ball off their shoulder? Are they catching the ball turned? Another key thing you can look at is, are their feet settled when they catch the ball? That’s how you know you’ve got a confident guy back there. If his feet are moving around as the ball gets ready to come down, then he’s nervous. He’s not pacing himself and he’s not, he’s got some work to do. Put it that way.”

Do you see that with the jug machine?

“It’s a lot harder to catch it live leg than it is the jug machine. The jug machine, it’s always kind of in the same area. It’s the same rotation. It’s the same spin. So whenever you can have a live leg, whenever those guys can catch that. The returners actually ask for that all the time. Experienced returners always want a live leg. So that’s a great question. Yep.”

I assume when it comes to coverage units, do you like have to wait for the games to really evaluate that? Can you evaluate the guys running around out here and make some determination or does it really come down to games for that?

“Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that you can always evaluate a guy’s movement skills. Is he a knee bender? All right. Is he trying to step to contact? Is he going to strike? But, to answer your question further, you really have to get to the game, to the moment of truth, to see if the guy can bring his feet. If a guy can put his shoulder on a guy, keeping his head, leverage side, keep his head out of there and really drive his feet for five and get the guy on the ground. We do various amounts of different drills where we evaluate if they can tackle in space and if they could come to, we don’t tackle them to the ground in practice, but we do get in a position. And that’s our job to make sure to know if we can evaluate whether he could make that play or not.”

With WR Brandon Aiyuk, I’d imagine his reps on Saturday, he’s probably not going to get a huge number of reps. Do you need to see multiple punt returns from him in the preseason to feel comfortable and what do you need to see from a guy who might be a starter who might not be getting those reps in the precinct?

“Yeah. Any player there is, whether it’s a starter or it’s a backup guy, whatever opportunity they get, or however many opportunities they get, I need to see that they catch the ball square and that they get vertical in that they’re pressing the heels of their blockers and reading their blocks. I don’t, sometimes you can tell off of one or two reps, sometimes other guys need 10 reps to go. And obviously the reps are limited in the game. So, they’ll all get a chance. We’ll try to get them all a chance back there, but obviously Brandon has a lot more room and a lot more rope than some of the other guys when it comes to opportunities.

Do you negotiate with head coach Kyle Shanahan or offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel like how much can I use this guy?

“Everything goes through Kyle. So, anything that we talk about and we haven’t done it yet in terms of playtime, who’s playing, who’s not playing who is going out there and who can you use for this series or for what quarter and things like that. We kind of have all have a staff meeting on that. And then we all kind of have to be on the same page, so we get the player the best opportunity to go out so he has enough fuel in the tank when it is his opportunity. So we meet together on that. And we try to make sure we take care of the players at the same time, taking care of the team.”

Follow up on Eric’s question about evaluation. When you’re in the meeting rooms, obviously all those young guys, that’s kind of their tickets to the roster in a lot of cases, special teams. Can you tell guys who are more invested in special teams than others? And does that influence how much opportunity you give them?

“Well, you definitely can tell who’s invested and who’s not invested. I think the players know that. We try to let them know that everything is being evaluated. From the way you take notes to the way you’re engaged in the meeting room, to the questions you ask, and then ultimately it’s what you do when you get on the field. But yeah, all of that is evaluated. And you can tell if a guy’s engaged or not, for sure. I definitely want them all to be engaged. Most of the time here, that’s the case because we’ve got really good guys that [general manager] John [Lynch] and Kyle have gotten here. And these guys really, they love special teams. So we’re all fortunate to have the character of players we have here. So, it’s been good. It’s been fun.”

Who’s your least engaged special teams player?

“Least engaged special teams player? Yeah, I think I’ll leave that one where I won’t answer that one. But I can guarantee you this, the least engaged guy, we’re pushing them to be better. We’re pushing them to be better. That guy, if we can get the bottom guy up, then we’re doing something.”