Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower Press Conference

Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower

Press Conference – December 15, 2021

San Francisco 49ers

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Feeling a little bit better this Wednesday, as opposed to last Wednesday?

“Anytime we win, I think everybody’s feeling good. So anytime we win everybody’s feeling good. But there’s never a perfect game. So you look at the tape, you try to get all those things cleaned up. We’ve still got a lot of things that we want to get better at. But the guys are definitely feeling better this week than the week before. But we’ve got a huge challenge in Atlanta and we’re excited this week, just like we were last week and we’re going to be up for the challenge. We can’t wait to get to practice.”

What is it about P Mitch Wishnowsky punts that are difficult to catch?

“The one thing about him is one of the reasons why we really liked him coming out. He’s uber talented, he’s super talented. And you guys have seen the progression in his career going into the third year. But he can hang the ball, he’s got so many different tricks in his bags, so many different clubs in his bag that his balls just fall different ways, depending on which balls he wants to kick and when he wants to use those. And we obviously talk about that stuff collectively, and he’s done a nice job with that over the years he’s been here. I mean, he has 16 balls that have either been muffed or bobbled since he’s been here. And he does an excellent job at that. So in his short career, has been here only two and a half years, you know? But 16 balls either muffed or bobbled and five of those we were lucky enough to recover, three of those this year. [WR Trent] Sherfield getting two of them, obviously one against Jacksonville and the one last week and then [WR] River Cracraft getting one so a total of three this year. And guys, they really like it. I mean, they really like it. They’re hard. We’ve had guys here try to catch them. [wide receivers coach] Wes [Welker], who’s done it a ton, Wes says it’s one of the hardest balls to catch. Some of our other guys on the staff have tried to catch them. So it’s a fun thing we do. And he does a really nice job with that and hopefully that’ll carry forward and help us out some. Turnovers are the biggest thing in wins and losses. And he’s helped us get five of them since he’s been here. So it’s been great.”

You said you guys talk about when to use certain tricks that are in the bag. I know you don’t wanna give away the secrets, but like in a general sense, what are conditions that you’re looking forward to maybe go with something like that or what are the things that play into that?

“Yeah, wind is always a factor when you talk about those things, but there are also tendencies of the returner as well. Those things you talk about as well depending on, not saying that was the case with that kid last week. He’s a good player. I’m not saying anything against that guy. But, those are the things you study in general. Every week, what balls does he struggle to catch? What balls does he not like? Which direction does he not like going? Does he struggle with a right to left wind? Does he struggle with a left to right wind? Does he struggle with a banana ball? Does he struggle with, you know, just different types of kicks and see if you can find a way to help your football team. And I’m glad the punt team was able to do that last week and help the football team. Two muffs led to 10 points and that was a good deal, but again, it’s a new week and that week is over. We’ve got a lot of stuff we’ve got to clean up, which we’ve been doing. And we are looking forward to Atlanta. I mean, really are looking forward to this next game. It is like I told you guys last week, whether it’s a good play or a bad play, it’s on the next in this league and we’ve got a huge challenge this week and we can’t wait to play these guys.”

It seems like onside kick recoveries across the league have been up. How much of the new rules do you think that they put in, how has that helped maybe make that play a little more?

“Yeah, I think the rules have helped tremendously with that stuff. I think those guys do a great job at looking at rules every year. We’re always involved in that somewhat as well, but I think the league is trending in the right direction with that stuff, with the rules and the onside kicks and the safety on kickoff. And it’s just, it’s trending in the right direction. It’s fun to be a part of.”

The two punts, the two muffs on Sunday, were they different punts? Was the first one a banana and the second one different?

“Yeah, I can’t, I would love to answer that question for you. I can’t tell you which ones were which. But they were two different type of punts.”

What is a banana ball?

“Check it out. You do a lot of reporting. You know what a banana ball is.”

One may have been a knuckle. Is that accurate?

“One of them did knuckle. Yes. One of them did knuckle.”

When you were watching him at Utah, did you see the returners struggling with his punts then as well?

“Sure. And also, I mean, when we worked him out live, obviously you get a chance to go and work a kid out, did a nice job at the Combine with that stuff. And Mitch, when we went to work him out, [former special teams assistant Stan] Kwan and I did at Utah, when we went to work him out, we just remember being in awe of all the different things that the kid could do. I mean, not only can he kick it with a great hang to distance ratio, I mean, he could kick it as high and as far as he wants to kick it, he can have it drop a different way. He can even kick a ball left footed. I mean, he can kick a ball left footed too, which was ridiculous. And it is just as good. It’s not better than his right foot, but he can kick a ball left footed. And it’s amazing to see. He’s talented as hell now I’m telling y’all.”

Does it help your return guys to be able to have to field his punts once in a while?

“Yeah, for sure. I mean, when we first got here everyone was in awe about the hangtime and just how long it hung up there. I remember [former 49ers WR] Trent Taylor who was here, you guys know Trent, love Trent to death. I remember Trent talking about out how hard it was and how high it hung up there. So Mitch has done that stuff throughout his career here. And we hope it carries forward. But he’s, I mean, he’s still got a long way to go. It’s a long season. But he’s doing well. I mean, he fluctuates between top-five and top-10 in net which is a team stat, which we like, because first you have to protect and then we have to punt and then we have to cover. So that’s one of the most important stats to us is net punt because it includes everybody, not just gross, just kicking the heck out of the ball and then it runs 20, 30 yards back down your throat. And now the defense goes out there. You don’t really want that either. So to me, he and [Los Angeles Rams P Johnny] Hekker right now are the two guys that are the best in the league right now at eliminating return yardage and having good nets and flipping the field.”

If something were to happen to Mitch during a game, as far as his right leg, is the backup punter Mitch’s left leg?

“It could be an option. That could definitely be an option. Yeah, he’s talented guys and we’ve just got to keep coaching him and he’s got to keep working his tail off. And he was better on kickoffs this week as well. He had three touchbacks in that tough weather and the kickoff coverage, they improved. Mitch is a weapon for us, both on kickoffs and punts and changing field position. And he’s really a, people don’t know it because people don’t study it a ton, but that’s what I do all day. I look at, you know, thousand special teams plays over and over. So when you’ve got a guy that can help flip the field position in two ways like that it’s special. And there’s not a lot of punters in the league that can do that. So he’s done a great job at it. And again, I mean they limited those guys to 13 yards a return and that’s a good unit we played against. And we’re going against another good unit this week in [Atlanta Falcons CB] Avery Williams, it’s a good returner. So we’ve got a huge challenge and our focus is really more on Atlanta more than anything else.”

Should Mitch have been the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week? I mean, do you feel he’s deserving?

“I’m always going to love my guys to be the special teams player the week. They’ve already announced that obviously. And he didn’t. Yeah, he didn’t win it, but he’s won one, he’s won NFC Special Teams Player of the Month. He’s won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. I want him to win NFC Special Teams Player of the Week this week. I’m done with last week. I want him to win this week, but yeah, in the punt coverage they love him. So I mean, he’s special and I’m glad we got him.”

Is there any concern with K Robbie Gould?

“No. Robbie’s done this for a ton of years. Robbie will get back to work like he always does. And I know he’ll be excited to go out there and kick again. But, he’s mentally tough. He’s no concern there. I mean, there’s a reason why he’s kicked 17 years in this league. There’s a reason why he is on the all-time, top of the all-time list. There’s reasons for that. And he’ll get back to work and there’s no concern for me at all. And I don’t think there’s any concern there for anyone here.”

His role on offense is so substantial. I don’t know how much he’s returning kicks now, but is Atlanta Falcons WR Cordarrelle Patterson still pretty much the gold standard in terms of that role?

“Yeah, I mean, to me in my era, since I’ve been watching this, I mean, [former NFL WR] Dante Hall was phenomenal to start. And then when I first started kind of looking at it and then you just study the game. I mean, there are guys, even before him that were phenomenal. But tape doesn’t really go back that far, I just know of them from history. And then [former NFL WR] Devin Hester to me was the best to do it. And then Cordarrelle is right there behind them. I mean, Cordarrelle is phenomenal. Obviously he’s a kick returner, doesn’t do punts like Devin did punt and kick return. And he hasn’t been back there as much, but we prepare for him just like anybody that’s returned a kick on a roster. We prepare for everyone like we’re going to play him. So if they put him back there, we’re preparing for him just like we’re preparing for Avery Williams.”

I should know this, but is free agent P Britton Colquitt a left footed punter?

“Yeah, but he is no longer there. So [Atlanta Falcons P Thomas] Morstead. And they’ve had a couple different punters this year. So I mean, it’s not easy to keep up with. I mean, they’ve had three or four different one’s in there this year. So yeah, no worries. It’s interesting. Morstead played against Atlanta and now he’s punting for Atlanta this year. And he’s a good player. You guys know Morstead. He’s been good throughout his career. So we’ve got a tough challenge. We’ve got to be ready to go. So it’ll be fun this week.”