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Rookies Make Good Impression

Posted Aug 13, 2011



Hurtling toward the Earth end-over-end, the pigskin finally came to a stop in the palms of Kendall Hunter, who was standing five yards deep in the end zone. But this wasn’t like any other football Hunter had ever touched before.

It was an NFL game ball.

The 2011 preseason had officially started seconds earlier, when the ball was teed up on the 35-yard-line 70 yards away on the turf of the Superdome and booted downfield. And while Hunter, the 5-foot-7-inch, 199-pound running back from Oklahoma State, was the first 49ers rookie to touch the ball in Friday’s preseason opener against the Saints, he wouldn’t be the last.

By the time the clock ran out on San Francisco’s 24-3 loss, the latest crop of 49ers rookies showed it has plenty to offer for this season and beyond.

“They were just able to make plays and we weren’t able to stop them from making them,” first-round pick Aldon Smith said. “It’s not that they were doing something, it’s that we weren’t doing things right. We’re going to improve, we’re going to get better.”

In a disappointing outcome in their first NFL appearances, newcomers like Smith, a physically-gifted linebacker, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick gave the 49ers Faithful something to cheer about.

Smith, the 6-foot-4, 263-pound Missouri product, wasted no time in showing why the 49ers made him the No. 7 overall pick in April’s draft. He debuted on San Francisco’s third defensive series on Friday, establishing himself has a destructive presence early.

Smith spent much of his night in the New Orleans backfield, as he totaled five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

Smith’s unique combination of size, speed and strength was on full display in the third quarter, when he blew past his opponent and tripped up New Orleans backup quarterback Chase Daniel for a six-yard loss, making him lose control of the ball. It was also the 49ers lone sack of the evening.

“It definitely felt good just getting out there, getting those butterflies out,” Smith said. “Just getting your first experience in the game, that felt good.”

Following a slow start to the game, the 49ers offense picked up the pace with Kaepernick under center for the team’s sixth offensive series. On a third-and-3 from the San Francisco 27-yard line, Hunter nabbed a pitch from Kaepernick and took it 13 yards around the left end of the line for a first down. Hunter carried the ball seven times for 29 yards.

Three plays after Hunter’s run, Kaepernick appeared to sneak the ball past the first-down marker after scrambling on a third-and-2 play, but it was nullified by a block in the back call. No matter, as the 6-foot-5 Kaepernick stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike to wide receiver Lance Long for a 20-yard gain on the next snap.

“I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure I’m ready for when I have the opportunity to try and show and perform to be a starter and take advantage of it,” Kaepernick said. “I think tonight was the first step to try and make that progress.”

On the ensuing play, Kaepernick again showed good pocket presence and turned a potential 8-yard-loss into a one-yard loss after evading the rush. Later in the quarter he would scamper for 28 yards to help set up a 59-yard field goal from David Akers, but Kaepernick would also throw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions. In all, the second-round pick from Nevada finished 9-of-19 for 117 yards while picking up 47 yards on six carries.

“There’s a lot of things I can learn from today, a lot of things I can improve on,” Kaepernick said. “Next week I won’t make those same mistakes and get better moving forward.”

While Smith’s pro debut was certainly impressive, he wasn’t the only rookie defensive lineman to impact the game. Demarcus Dobbs also tallied four tackles, including one for a loss, while Brian Bulcke and Ian Williams showed good strength in the trenches. Third-round pick Chris Culliver, a cornerback from South Carolina, saw plenty of early action, earning reps with the first-team nickel and dime defenses.

On special teams, safety Colin Jones was flying all over the place, taking part in two punt return tackles. Fellow rookie Kenny Rowe also blocked a punt and recovered the ball in the third quarter, but it was wiped out when the 49ers were whistled for having 12 men on the field.