Many players are hesitant when coming back from ACL injuries. A few are like JaCorey Shepherd.
“When I get that ball, I’m not scared of anybody,” Shepherd said this week. “I feel like I can make you miss or I can outrun you.”
Entering Sunday’s game at Arizona, Shepherd was unknown to even the most ardent 49ers fans. But he began turning heads with three fearless kickoff returns that averaged 34.7 yards. The 49ers’ previous average on kickoffs – which had been a good time to get a beer or use the restroom – was a lowly 17.6 yards, and two of his predecessors at the position, Chris Davis and Keshawn Martin, lost fumbles this year.
“You love his makeup; you love his approach to the game,” coach Chip Kelly said. “Very smart, very intelligent football player.”
Kelly saw similar promise from Shepherd last year in Philadelphia. The Eagles drafted him in the sixth round after a hamstring injury caused him to run a 4.65-second 40-yard dash, too slow for a cornerback or return man. But when the hamstring healed during the Eagles’ offseason, he proved to be worthy of a higher pick.
Kelly said Shepherd was in position to win the starting nickel cornerback spot when he tore his right ACL during a training camp practice in August last year. The Eagles released Shepherd from their practice squad earlier this season, and the 49ers – who were dealing with injuries to nickel cornerbacks Davis, Will Redmond and Jimmie Ward at the time – pounced.
Kelly made the call.
“It meant a lot,” Shepherd said. “It showed that he was kind of paying attention and keeping an eye on me even though he wasn’t (in Philadelphia). It was a lot of loyalty.”
Kelly acknowledges he was eying Shepherd as a cornerback, not a kick returner when he made the transaction, but with dwindling options at the position against the Saints, he decided to give Shepherd a try.
On his first return last Sunday, Shepherd said he thought Saints kicker Wil Lutz was trying to boot the ball beyond on him but failed.
“I took advantage of it,” Shepherd said. “And from there, it was just like, ‘OK, let’s see what you can do now.’ ”
Smith questionable – The 49ers’ most prominent skill players, running back Carlos Hyde and wide receiver Torrey Smith, are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals.
Hyde is dealing with a shoulder injury that has kept him out of the team’s past two games. Smith has a sore back, which slowed him last week against the Saints. He played 45 of 60 snaps and was on the bench by game’s end.
Both were limited during practices, though both said they felt better as the week went on.
After hitting a blocking sled Thursday, Hyde said he was optimistic about playing against Arizona: “I was fine. That was the only kind of contact I’ve had so far. No setbacks right now, so that’s good.”
If Hyde can’t play, DuJuan Harris will make his second consecutive start at running back. Smith, meanwhile, has never missed a game since entering the league in 2011. Aaron Burbridge and Rod Streater will step in if his streak ends Sunday.
Et cetera – The 49ers have a new “Gridiron Heroes” exhibit at the team museum that details former 49ers who also were military veterans. The museum, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is free for veterans this weekend.
▪ Cornerback Rashard Robinson (knee), who returned to practice Thursday, also is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch (ankle) is out.
▪ Wide receiver Quinton Patton was fined $18,231 for a horse-collar penalty following a Saints interception in the first quarter Sunday.