Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower Press Conference

Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower

Press Conference – September 9, 2021

San Francisco 49ers

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How does this work as far as the guys who are up and down on gameday? Does head coach Kyle Shanahan ask you for a list of guys that you cannot go into a Sunday without? As far as the guys who aren’t starters who may or may not be on kind of the bubble for being activated or deactivated?

“Yeah, that’s a good question. I think when it comes to stuff like that, coach Shanahan and I meet on that and he meets with other position groups on that as well, but we’ll talk through it and we’ll see who gives us the best chance to win. Who we think will give us the best chance to win in terms of offense, defense and special teams. And he’ll ask me specifically about special teams and what guy can you use and what role will he do for you and what are their tendencies? Where can we attack these guys? Okay. Why do we have this guy up versus this guy up? And we go through it that way. Some standard guys, or some of the top-level guys on teams are always up. And then they’re always those few that we talk about towards the end of the week and what’s going to give us the best chance to win.”

At the beginning of camp, we asked you about WR Brandon Aiyuk returning punts. The depth chart we received has him as the starting punt returner. Is that official and if so, what did he do to win the job?

“Yeah, I think the depth chart you’ve always had has Brandon Aiyuk at punt returner. So the one you’ve always had has had him there and unfortunately we didn’t see him in the preseason. And that doesn’t matter in terms of if Brandon’s out there or not. Our philosophy has never changed on punt returners. We’re always going to play the guy we feel like gives us the best opportunity to win. And at this point, we have several guys that we feel like that are on the roster that we have confidence in, that’ll give us an opportunity to win. So, we’re always going to play the best guy. So whoever we think the best guy is on Sunday, that’s the guy that’ll start out there. I hope that answers your question.”

P Mitch Wishnowsky against the Raiders had a pretty big game from a numbers perspective. What changes for a punter when they go from averaging a certain number of yards to a random game where they’ll exceed that by 10 yards or whatever?
“Yeah. That’s a really good question. I think when it comes to a punter, a lot of it has to do with where they’re punting the ball from on the field. So, the field position on that is critically important. We always stress field position. What area of the field are you on? Obviously, if you’re backed up a lot that’s not good because we’re not moving the ball a ton. But the punter can get big numbers that way. So those numbers get skewed at times. And then you have a punter that may be punting from the plus-50 and he’s downing the ball inside the 10, inside the five, and it’s helping the defense, you’re playing great defense. And I thought Mitch did a wonderful job of that in ’19. He doesn’t get enough credit for it, but he did a phenomenal job of helping the defense in that year. And he did a good job with that, obviously, versus the Raiders. And a lot of that you need to look at how he’s striking the ball. Some of that you can’t see live, but some of that you can. How he’s striking the ball, where he’s striking the ball, where’s his drop, how far is he dropping the ball down, does he have quick hands, does it have enough hangtime so that you could cover it or is it on an area on the field where you don’t need hang time where you can shoot it? So those are some of the things where you can gain extra yardage on punts. And I think he did a really good job and we’re hoping that carries forward because he has all the talent in the world and all of it in his body. And he did a good job, so all credit to him on that.”

Going back to Brandon Aiyuk. When you’re dealing with a starting player and having a prominent role on special teams, how much of a give and take is that? When you’re dealing with a starting wide receiver, such as Brandon Aiyuk, having a role on special teams where he’s going to put himself in harm’s way more than once a game. Is that a conversation that has to be had too?

“I’ve got utmost respect for these players, because what they do on a daily basis is hard for anybody to do. So on every play to me they’re in harm’s way. Offense, defense or special teams. I think when you deal with any guy, you specifically are talking about Brandon, but I don’t specifically think about it like Brandon. I think about which player gives us the best chance to win and what player do we have out there and what plays is he playing on defense and what plays is he playing on offense so that he has enough energy to help every phase. If that makes sense.”

Have you seen the video of WR Mohamed Sanu Sr. launching the punts over his house?
“I have not seen that video.”

 Yeah, it’s been circulating around the internet. I guess this offseason he set up a jugs machine to launch punts over his house to receive them. What’s the craziest thing that you’ve seen a player do in their offseason training to be able to develop the skill of punt returning?

“Of the craziest thing I’ve seen on punt returning to develop skill? In the offseason, to tell you truth, I don’t see a lot of videos of what guys do. But guys do a lot of different things. Guys catch tennis balls out of jug machines. Guys do various different things with having guys run at them. Guys do different things like blindfold. Guys do different things like catching a ball with one hand. I’ve also seen guys see how many balls they can catch at a time. And we did that in Washington when I was in Washington. And I think the [former NFL CB] DeAngelo Hall probably caught, I think it was seven, seven balls at one time. So that was kind of cool, he had one in his leg, one in between his legs, two under his arms. So that’s probably the craziest thing that I’ve seen a guy do. But I do know Mohamed Sanu can do a lot of different things because he can throw the ball, he can do a lot, he can punt. I don’t know if you guys know that, but he can do a ton of different things.
He’s talented. So yeah, it doesn’t surprise me.”

With the seven, was that coming down on punt returns? So that was coming from far? From 40 yards away and he’s catching seven?

“Yeah. Yeah. It was pretty amazing. He had six balls and caught the seventh. The guys, they had fun with it. They tried to do it a lot and then he got five balls in the hand, the ball hits, and then all the balls fall on the ground. So, it’s pretty neat deal. That’s the craziest thing I’ve seen.”

 So, is Sanu your backup punter?

“Is Sanu my back up punter? I would love to tell you that, but I can’t tell you that. But he is in the mix, but good question. We’ve got a lot of guys who can punt. You know [K] Robbie [Gould] can punt too. Yeah so, he’s done it before.”

We talked to RB Elijah Mitchell early on and he said that he didn’t do any special teams when he was in college. And it seems like he’s going to have a pretty substantial role in that. Does that speak to how far he’s come over this offseason in those areas?

“Yeah, that’s a good question. I will say this, I love Elijah Mitchell to death. The type of man he is, the way he works, where he’s come from in terms of where he is now. What I would say about him is it’s a one game sample, but it was a hell of a sample. He did a really nice job in that game. Obviously, you guys saw, he had to the big kick return that game and he had a tackle inside the 20-yard line to open the game. And he has honed in on his craft. He is trying to do everything we’re asking him to do. He’s detailed. He asks really really good questions in the meeting. He’ll come in afterward. And if he doesn’t understand something, he’s not afraid to ask a question. And he wants to know the why’s, why are we doing it this way? Or why would I use this technique versus this guy? And what would help me win this matchup? So that’s what I like about Elijah. And just to speak to the way his mind works is he wants to be great. And I think that is what has helped him to get to where you’re saying right now with a guy that hasn’t done it at all. And obviously, I love Elijah. I can’t say enough great things about him.”