Kyle Shanahan once babysat Christian McCaffrey. Looking after him on Sunday will be a group effort.
That’s because while the Carolina Panthers list McCaffrey as a running back, they drafted him eighth overall in April to add some zest and versatility to what had been a fairly staid offense.
According to one 49ers defender, Carolina found the right guy.
“He can line up everywhere: Wildcat (quarterback), running back, receiver, in the slot,” said defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. “And he’s effective in all those spots. … He’s going to be tough to handle. It’s going to be fun to go against him.”
Thomas and McCaffrey not only were on the same Stanford squad last season, they were housemates during their final year at school.
McCaffrey also is familiar to 49ers general manager John Lynch, who played on some of the same Stanford teams as McCaffrey’s father, former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey.
“I can tell you I have great affinity for Christian as just a guy who’s done a lot for my school and their program,” Lynch said in February. “His parents, I’ve known them since a long time ago on the Farm there at Stanford. They’re special people and he’s a special player.”
Shanahan, meanwhile, said he grew up idolizing Ed McCaffrey when he played for the Broncos and Shanahan’s father, Mike, was Denver’s head coach. The relationship may have led to a little spending money for babysitting services, although Shanahan said he might not deserve the credit.
“If I did, I probably left my sister to do it very quickly and moved on,” he said Wednesday. “His dad was my hero growing up. I was close with Ed and his wife Lisa. That’s really why I wore 87 in college. Ed was the man. I knew all his sons. They were a lot younger when I knew them, but they’ve all turned out to be pretty good athletes and real good people.”
In three preseason games with the Panthers, McCaffrey lined up 32 times at halfback, three times as a wide receiver and once as the slot receiver, according to scouting service Pro Football Talk.
At Stanford he was a slot receiver on only 6 percent of his offensive snaps. But he was the quarterback’s intended target on 74 percent of those plays, underscoring how good he was at getting open. McCaffrey caught 99 passes for 1,206 yards in his three seasons at Stanford.
At times on Sunday, he could be matched against a safety, a linebacker, a nickel back or a cornerback. The 49ers said the catch-all approach for limiting McCaffrey was roughing him up.
“Just keep nailing him,” said safety Lorenzo Jerome. “This guy’s built with a lot of juice. We’ve just got to keep hitting him and hitting him.”
Thomas said he’s remained close friends with McCaffrey, but wouldn’t mind putting a hit on the elusive runner. If he does, it will be a first for a former Stanford defender.
“We weren’t allowed to touch Christian,” he said with a smile. “We wanted to keep him healthy back at school. It will be fun to finally get to hit him. If I get that chance I’ve got to take advantage of it.”