Ja’Quan Gardner received the call of his dreams, only it came a few months later than he was expecting it.
Gardner, a native of Ceres who played his college ball at Humboldt State, was signed by the 49ers on Tuesday, just two days before the final preseason game Thursday against the Los Angeles Chargers. The call came more than three months after the running back initially tried out for San Francisco during rookie minicamp in early May.
“I got a call from my agent saying the Niners wanted to sign me. I thought he was joking with me,” Gardner said after his first and only practice ahead of Thursday’s game. “A guy called me from the Niners, and I asked him if I was being pranked and all that. He was serious, so, I mean, I’m happy to be here.”
The 49ers signed Gardner presumably to have a role in the exhibition finale after losing other running backs to injuries. Presumptive starter Jerick McKinnon strained a calf earlier this month just three days after his backup, Matt Breida, separated a shoulder in the first quarter of the preseason opener against the Cowboys. Joe Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2017 who was vying for a roster spot, busted a rib in the second exhibition game in Houston and hasn’t played since.
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Gardner will go down as one of the best players in Humboldt State history. He rushed for 5,495 yards and 72 touchdowns. He finished his career at Central Valley High School as the Stanislaus District’s all-time leading rusher with 6,014 yards.
At 5-foot-7 and 205 pounds and coming from a small school, Gardner didn’t get an invite to the NFL combine and went undrafted. But he made enough of an impression on 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan during his spring tryout that he remained on the team’s short list of options at running back should it need reinforcements. He was also invited to try out for the Rams.
“He did a good job in our rookie tryout camp. He was a guy who picked the stuff up in the weekend he was here,” Shanahan said. “We liked him as a person. We always liked his college tape, and he ran well while he was here. We’re down some guys, and we wanted to make sure we got another guy in here.”
Said Gardner: “I felt like the workout went good. My whole goal was to come out here and prove that I belong out here. So I feel like I did that. I’m glad that they took a second look and brought me back in.”
Gardner has the unenviable task of transitioning from working out at a small gym in Ceres to the NFL, where he’s expected to get playing time just two days after being signed. He said Shanahan helped prepare him mentally for such a scenario.
“He said that you just keep working,” Gardner said. “You never know when the call might come. You just got to stay ready, stay prepared. That’s what I did.”
Injury updates — Tight end George Kittle returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering a separated shoulder in the preseason opener. He was a limited participant but still expects to be back in time for Week 1 against the Vikings.
▪ McKinnon and Breida went through workouts on the side field in full pads during the portion of practice open to reporters. They both appear on track to return for the opener. Tackle Garry Gilliam (concussion) was also back in practice after suffering a head injury against the Cowboys in the first exhibition game. None are expected to play Thursday.
Right-guard competition — Shanahan said Tuesday that Mike Person was the favorite to start at right guard heading into the season, though the battle with 2016 first-round pick Joshua Garnett isn’t over.
“I would say it’s his job to lose right now or however you want to say it,” Shanahan said. “Josh could beat him out. But Person has been the most consistent since day one, and he’s had a real good camp. We’ll see what happens these last few days.”