You can jump routes, force fumbles, bat down passes, block opponents and blow up runners during a training camp practice. The one thing that’s forbidden: hitting the quarterback.
That changes today for the 49ers as they host the Houston Texans in both teams’ exhibition opener. And Chip Kelly, for one, is looking forward to seeing how his quarterbacks react in their first rough-and-tumble action of 2016.
“At times you’ve seen guys that would break (out running) when it comes to a training session, but then all of a sudden they get into a game and they’re a different guy because they got hit a couple times,” Kelly said. “So what are they like when there’s the physical contact? That’s where you have to be able to have both to make an accurate decision in terms of where they are.”
After Colin Kaepernick missed two practices with a sore shoulder last week, it’s likely that Blaine Gabbert will start against Houston. Kaepernick’s status for the game was undetermined heading into the weekend and will depend on how he feels at game time. He said Friday that he thought he’d be able to play.
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He and Gabbert are not the only two passers jockeying for position on the 49ers’ roster.
The team’s No. 3 quarterback, Thad Lewis, likely would run the second-string offense if Kaepernick is unable to play. Lewis, who spent the 2015-16 season with the Eagles, was the only passer on the roster familiar with Kelly’s system when practice began.
He’s dueling with sixth-round pick Jeff Driskel, who has looked good in recent practices and who could make the team as a special-teams contributor. Driskel, who was the fastest quarterback at the scouting combine in February, has been working as the punter’s personal protector, has been a part of kickoff coverage units and even has returned a few kickoffs this summer.
“For me, I’m playing the numbers game,” special-teams coordinator Derius Swinton II said. “I try to squeeze every little bit out of it. You have a guy like Thad Lewis – when I had him as a rookie (with the St. Louis Rams in 2010), Thad will tell you he covered every kick for us on the practice squad. So if you have a quarterback that can do that, it pays dividends for us.”
The 49ers’ offensive line, which was arguably the team’s worst unit last season, has more talent this season but still is in a state of flux. First-round pick Joshua Garnett has lined up at both right and left guard this summer and probably will enter the game at left guard with the second-string offense.
Based on recent practices, the starters will be Joe Staley at left tackle, Zane Beadles at left guard, center Daniel Kilgore, right guard Andrew Tiller and right tackle Trent Brown. Aside from Beadles, that’s the same line that finished the 2015 season.
At wide receiver, the 49ers entered training camp hoping at least one or two young pass catchers would seize roster spots. One of the likeliest candidates, Eric Rogers, tore his ACL in the first week. Another, DeAndre Smelter, has been in and out of the receiver rotation over the last two weeks after he missed all of 2015 while recovering from an ACL tear.
The starters appear to be Torrey Smith, Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton. Veteran Jerome Simpson also has been a consistent playmaker and could start against the Texans after Patton appeared to get nicked in Friday’s scrimmage.
A trio of rookies – Aaron Burbridge from Michigan State, Bryce Treggs from Cal and Devon Cajuste from Stanford – have been prominent in recent practices and promise to be on the field in the second half.