Vernon Davis and his fellow 49ers tight ends will work this season with the type of stern, old-line position coach under whom Davis excelled early in his career, although not the one the 49ers originally had in mind.
Coach Jim Tomsula, according to a February report by CSN Bay Area, originally wanted Pete Hoener, who coached tight ends in San Francisco from 2005 to 2010, to return to the position. Davis has long credited Hoener for shaping him into a well-rounded tight end and taking him to a Pro Bowl level.
Hoener, however, is under contract with Carolina, which blocked Tomsula’s attempt to interview him.
So Tomsula tapped someone with a similar approach, Tony Sparano. Like Hoener, Sparano has a background as both an offensive-line and tight ends coach, underscoring his understanding of blocking and the run game. Hoener is credited with turning Davis and Delanie Walker – the latter entered the league in 2006 after playing wide receiver in college – as the best-blocking tight end duo in the league.
Sparano, 53, has spent six NFL seasons coaching offensive lines and another four working with tight ends. He also was Miami’s head coach from 2008 to 2011 and the Raiders’ interim coach for 12 games last season.
“Tony Sparano – he’s really, really similar to Pete Hoener,” Davis said last week. “No-nonsense, tough. It’s all about helping you get better. They just want to see you get better, and that’s what I love about Sparano. He’s a good coach, a great coach.”
Davis had the worst season of his career last year, when he missed two games because of injury and caught only two touchdown passes. Both scores came in a Week 1 win over Dallas. The downfield catches that had been a staple of his career all but vanished as well. After averaging more than 16 yards a catch in 2013, he averaged a career-low 9.4 yards last year. His longest catch last season – 29 yards – also was the most modest “long” of his nine-year career.
“Whenever I’d run, like, my deep over routes, there was a safety sitting over there already,” Davis said. “It was just game planning. And nothing really ever opened up. But I wasn’t really ever a factor in the offense last year. ... The first game, yeah. But the second game, the tight ends (weren’t) really involved as a whole.”
After tinkering with multiple wide receiver sets throughout last season, the 49ers are returning to more traditional looks this year. There will be an emphasis on the running game. And tight ends again will have a major role.
This offseason, Sparano is working with a huge group of players ranging in age and status from the 31-year-old Davis to draft picks Blake Bell and Busta Anderson. Counting long snapper/tight end Kyle Nelson, the 49ers’ offeseason roster has nine tight ends.
One thing is certain – all of them will learn how to block.
“He’s a stickler with blocking, with running routes, with releases, with everything,” Davis said. “I mean, it’s everything. He’s a stickler with everything.”