SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It didn’t seem fair on the 49ers’ practice field Sunday. No defender could stay near receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who caught five passes in team drills — four for touchdowns.
Three of those scores, two from quarterback Sam Darnold and one from Brandon Allen, came during the 49ers’ first red zone session of training camp. The fourth came from longer distance, when Darnold hit Aiyuk in stride on a deep crossing pattern that turned into a 40-yard sprint for pay dirt.
“My favorite route is probably the go ball — we’re trying to get the go ball going,” Aiyuk said after practice. “But we like that deep cross. We talk about that one being a free one. As long as we get past these linebackers in this defense, we got a bunch of space to work with.”
Aiyuk’s fellow receiver, Deebo Samuel, also capitalized on this soft spot in the 49ers’ defense to haul in a chunk gain from Darnold. It was a day that saw the team’s offense deliver its best production so far. Over the first three practices of camp, 49ers’ quarterbacks had gone a combined 30-for-63. But on Sunday, the QBs went 16-of-23 with several scoring throws.
The performance brought back some balance to the proceedings, which had been controlled by the 49ers’ defense, ahead of Monday’s first practice with pads.
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Aiyuk, who’s coming off a 1,015-yard season and is eligible for a new contract with the 49ers (the team has picked up his fifth-year option for the 2024 season), was clearly the offense’s leading catalyst. He’s flashed throughout the entire first week of camp, with Sunday’s performance being the most brilliant.
“My fourth year in this offense, third offseason in this offense, the work that I’ve put in and the success I’ve had over the years — put it all together, and that’s what you get,” Aiyuk said. “It’s a little different once your mind is not going a million miles an hour. It seems that it’s less work for your body to go through. Just being able to get to spots and just play football. Understanding the feel, understanding the playbook, understanding what I have to do on every given play.”
Said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan of Aiyuk’s continued surge: “Just the way he was all offseason. Just how much he randomly called, talked about football, how much he’s working out, how prepared he was when we started in Phase One and Two. You can just tell he is excited. The questions he asked, he’s just really into it.”
Four of Aiyuk’s five catches came on throws from Darnold, who was the 49ers’ sharpest quarterback of the day. He finished 8-of-10, beating pressure twice on his red zone touchdown tosses to Aiyuk. One came when Darnold stepped up in the pocket to evade a blitz from safety George Odum. The second came when Darnold rolled right under duress and, while on the move, hit a streaking Aiyuk in the back of the end zone.
“He is a very talented guy,” Shanahan said of Darnold. “Everyone has really liked working with him. I think the team’s loved him. He’s doing some good things out there and getting more and more comfortable each day.”
QB Trey Lance also fared better than he had in recent practices, finishing 5-of-8 with a red zone scoring toss to receiver Chris Conley. Lance also scrambled for a touchdown in front of the pylon, though in live action that play might’ve been a sack for rookie edge rusher Spencer Waege, the quarterback’s former college teammate at North Dakota State.
Lance’s best play came on his first throw, a perfect 25-yard strike to tight end George Kittle off of play action. The third-year quarterback, however, missed yet another short throw — this one should’ve been a red zone touchdown to Samuel on the rollout — after misfiring on two similar patterns in the 49ers’ prior practice Friday. It’ll be imperative for Lance to demonstrate more consistent accuracy on such bread-and-butter throws as camp continues.
The 49ers’ fourth quarterback, Allen, shares initials with Aiyuk and threw the wideout one of his touchdowns on Sunday.
“B.A. threw a great ball in the red zone today,” Aiyuk said, smiling.
Including running plays, Allen took eight total reps behind the third-team offensive line while Lance and Darnold both took 16 reps apiece in split work behind the first- and second-team O-lines. Top 49ers’ quarterback Brock Purdy had the day off to rest his surgically repaired elbow and will be back under center with the first-team offense Monday. Shanahan said that Allen’s rep count will likely decrease on practice days that see the 49ers dress four quarterbacks, although he continued to emphasize that Allen has performed well enough to earn more opportunities.
Aiyuk is good with that.
“We have four guys who can get it anywhere it needs to be,” Aiyuk said. “As a receiver, when you have four guys who can throw the football, when we finished the season the way we did last year, it definitely gives you a little bit of ease.”
• Cornerback Charvarius Ward was back at practice but did not participate in team drills.
“His groin is a little tight so we’re just being smart with him,” Shanahan said.
Defensive end Austin Bryant and defensive tackle Kalia Davis both missed practice. Purdy did conditioning sprints on his own early in the session, while running back Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Trent Williams both had scheduled veteran days off. Jaylon Moore again filled in for Williams as the first team’s left tackle, an indication that he might have the early lead in the 49ers’ competition for swing tackle.
• Aiyuk was very complimentary of third-year cornerback Deommodore Lenoir.
“De-mo, that’s my dog,” Aiyuk said. “He’s a real dog. They challenged him when he got here, and he stood up to the challenge ever since. Not a lot of people can. A lot of people shy away from the challenge, and he stepped right into it and became a player.”
Aiyuk also acknowledged undrafted rookie cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, who had registered a physical pass break-up against Samuel on Friday.
“(No.) 22, he ‘s out there working,” Aiyuk said. “He’s not afraid to compete at all.”
• Shanahan was complimentary of second-year running back Ty Davis-Price, who looks leaner than he did as a rookie last season.
“I think he’s taken a huge jump since last year,” Shanahan said. “I mean, just the conditioning that he put in in Phase One and Two, what he did these 40 days away. Just how good he was the first day we saw him in terms of his stamina, how he’s running, understanding the offense, and what we want out of him more. I thought he had a great OTAs and he’s come back and he’s having an even better training camp.”
• Perhaps the most impressive play of the afternoon came courtesy 49ers defensive end Drake Jackson, who blanketed Elijah Mitchell — the team’s fastest running back — to break up a pass from Lance 20 yards downfield.
“I’m just happy I stayed with him,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying to make a play.”
The fact that Jackson has added about 15 pounds of mass this offseason made that exhibition of speed, which he’s had since his high school days in Southern California (see below), all the more impressive.
A ‘wow’ clip: This is 49ers DE Drake Jackson in high school covering one of his team’s fastest receivers, Malachi Riley, who’s now playing at the University of Arizona.
Jackson blanketed Riley, which adds background to how he blanketed fast 49ers’ RB Elijah Mitchell today: pic.twitter.com/hGb3SMSCz3
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) July 30, 2023
• Shanahan’s father, Mike Shanahan, has attended two consecutive practices and will remain in town for more sessions this week.
“I always love having my dad around,” Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s good to see him and spend time with him. I love that. My son’s here, my nephew, so it’s good that he can hang around them a little bit. And he loves watching football. So it’s nice to talk to him a little bit at the end of the night instead of getting a bunch of texts. It’s a little easier and it’s nice to be able to have a beer with him at the end of the night, too.”
(Photo of Brandon Aiyuk: Robert Edwards / USA Today)
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