Cornerback Rashard Robinson has a reputation for being a scrappy guy, but that’s not why he was wearing boxing mitts Thursday.
It’s because Robinson, the 49ers’ fourth-round draft pick out of LSU, also has a tendency to be a grabby guy, using his hands to slow and redirect wide receivers, sometimes more than might be allowed by an NFL officiating crew.
The mitts prevent him from grasping and tugging his opponent, forcing him to use proper footwork to keep pace.
“Once you get a quick punch in with the boxing gloves, then you’ve got to get the feet moving,” Robinson said. “If not, the receivers – we have great receivers – will run right past you.”
That imperfection aside, Robinson has been one of the 49ers’ most impressive rookies since the spring.
The 49ers’ defensive backs mostly dominated their offensive opponents during Thursday’s padded practice. Robinson highlighted the action, batting away two passes during seven-on-seven drills. He also intercepted a pass by Colin Kaepernick in an earlier session.
Robinson was a risky choice on draft day. He was suspended in college and sat out the 2015 season. The last game he played was on Oct. 25, 2014. He was a featherweight 171 pounds during the scouting combine in February, considered too thin for an NFL cornerback.
But he’s since worked his way to 185 pounds. And his long frame, coupled with an aggressive style, has given the 49ers’ young receivers little room to maneuver so far in training camp.
Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward, who also had an interception Thursday, are the 49ers’ starters at cornerback. Robinson mostly has lined up at left cornerback with the reserve unit.
“He’s feisty. He has that mentality,” said safety Eric Reid, a four-year veteran out of LSU. “He might be too handsy, a little bit at times. At times, he has to reel that in a little bit. But he has the attitude you want.”
One of the biggest differences between past 49ers defenses and this year’s unit is the amount of press coverage. Coordinator Jim O’Neil wants his cornerbacks to line up toe to toe with receivers to knock them off rhythm and to jump their routes for interceptions. The 49ers had nine interceptions last season; only three teams had fewer.
“They want us to be competitive,” Reid said. “They don’t want guys on the ground (in practice). But if it’s a bang-bang play, they understand. And we’ve got to get used to that. That’s what the game is about.”
Reid said there’s a points-based competition among the defensive players to see who can come up with the most big plays. One point is awarded for breaking up a pass and three points for an interception, but an interception is bumped up to five points if a player can come up with one while wearing the boxing mitts.
Robinson did that in the spring, and he won the team’s offseason competition.
But as Reid told him, the 49ers have entered a new phase, and the competition has started anew.
Said Reid: “I told him, ‘It’s not spring ball anymore. It’s going to get serious. This is training camp. We’ve got a game in 10 days.’ It’s OK to make mistakes. But don’t make the same mistake twice. That’s what being a pro is.’ ”