“It’s the first day.”
Coach Jim Tomsula uttered some variation of that six times over two media sessions when asked about DeAndrew White’s performance in the 49ers’ opening practice of training camp Saturday.
There was White, a rookie wide receiver from Alabama, twisting his body and catching a deep pass down the left sideline against cornerback Mylan Hicks. There he was streaking down the right sideline for a 45-yard bomb from fellow rookie Dylan Thompson. There he was sliding across the middle to snag a low burner from Blaine Gabbert.
And while it’s true those exploits came on Day One of a 25-plus-day training camp, White had similar feats during the May and June practices. He already has grabbed the attention of his fellow wideouts. And he already has a nickname from the man trying to tamp down the hype, Tomsula, who referred to him only as “Alabama” on Saturday.
All of which is to say, if you’re wondering which Cinderella-type player could make San Francisco’s final roster next month, White at least has the early lead.
Entering the draft, wide receiver seemed like the 49ers’ greatest need. But the team used only one of its 10 picks on the position, and that player, DeAndre Smelter, is recovering from a Nov. 29 ACL tear.
Those circumstances made the 49ers a prime destination for pass catchers who were overlooked in the draft, and the team signed five in early May. Even before practices began, White stood out among that group.
He played at Alabama opposite the first receiver taken in this year’s draft, the Raiders’ Amari Cooper, and against some of the most ferocious defenses in the nation. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds. And he played special teams, sometimes as a return man but more often as a gunner on punt coverage, a noted tough-guy role.
A year ago, Alabama coach Nick Saban called White the “best gunner on the team.”
“He’d be the best guy on the kickoff. He’s the best guy on punt return,” Saban told reporters. “Wherever you put him, that’s how he plays, that’s what he does. That’s how he plays receiver all the time.”
Saban also pumped up White to NFL scouts before the draft, so how is it that 35 receivers were selected and White wasn’t one of them?
Against Mississippi in 2012, he tore his ACL while blocking on a running play. In subsequent years, he suffered a separated shoulder, a hamstring injury and a foot injury.
The last ailment led to the removal of a sesamoid bone in the ball of the foot near the big toe. It’s an unusual injury and created questions about White’s ability to fire off the line of scrimmage and make cuts.
NFL teams loathe uncertainty, especially when it involves the draft. And with so many quality receivers this year, they passed on White.
White is missing a corn-kernel-sized bone in his left foot. But the draft snub has placed a sizable chip on his shoulder.
“I use it as motivation,” he said Monday. “I wouldn’t say I’m mad at everyone, but I’m ready.”
White signed with the 49ers, he said, because they gave him the best opportunity. The team is seeking deep threats in an offense that wants more big-chunk plays this season. And White has supplied a lot of those early in camp.
“He worked through some injuries in college – that sometimes makes you stronger,” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. “We are thrilled to have him on our team.”
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are the clear-cut starters at wide receiver. And versatile Bruce Ellington is sure to stick around. But beyond that, the position is fuzzy. Can White beat out veteran Jerome Simpson or promising youngster Quinton Patton? Will the 49ers keep more than five wideouts?
As Tomsula reminded, there’s nearly a month to go before we know the answers.
“We’ve always thought DeAndrew White was extremely talented,” he said. “We’re happy he went where he went. We’re happy he is where he is. But again, it’s the first day. Let’s not overdo it.”