Notebook: Jim O'Neil Compliments Defensive Rookies, Gives Update on ILB Competition

Jim O'Neil likes his rookies.

Saturday's press conference from the 49ers defensive coordinator offered many positive updates on the team's 2016 draft class.

Specifically, DeForest Buckner, Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson and Ronald Blair III were discussed prior to the sixth training camp session.

Buckner has earned first-team reps on the defensive line in the early stages of camp. According to the defensive play-caller, the opportunity was not handed to the seventh overall pick.

"(He) worked his way from the third string all the way up to the first string," the coach began. "We didn't give him anything. He had to earn it. He earned our respect. He earned the players' respect. I think all of our guys know, we don't care where you were drafted. You're going to have to earn it. Nothing is going to be given to you and he's done a nice job.

"We're looking forward to seeing him in the preseason."

Another player who has come on strong in recent days is Redmond, the third-round draft pick out of Mississippi State. The young cornerback suffered a season-ending ACL tear late in his college season. It caused him to miss the offseason program with the 49ers. But all along, general manager Trent Baalke said Redmond would be on the field for camp.

So far, Redmond has been a bright spot on defense as a slot defender. This is without being able to take on a heavy workload in practice. The coaches and medical staff have been mindful about not putting too much on Redmond's body.

When he's on the field, No. 23 has demonstrated impressive talent.

"Blitz ability, man-coverage ability, ability to put hands on a slot receiver," O'Neil began. "He's been great. He's a football junkie. He eats it up. Every time I look at him in a meeting room his head is down, he's taking notes and then he's checking in with (defensive backs) coach (Jeff) Hafley after the meeting, 'Hey, coach these are the few things I had questions about.' So, he does a great job."

Robinson, the second of three cornerbacks drafted by the 49ers, has been one of the most impressive defensive players in camp. The fourth-round pick out of LSU has recorded pass breakups in nearly every day of on-field work.

"I think he's been awesome," O'Neil said.

The 6-foot-1 cornerback has excelled in the coordinator's press-man system.

"I watched him two years ago at LSU," O'Neil said. "In my eight years in the NFL, I thought he had some of the best skills at what we call level-one, so press technique, of anybody I've ever watched on college tape. Now, he was very raw when he got here and I think coach Hafley has done an unbelievable job with him and the kid has done an unbelievable job taking coaching and bringing it out to the field.

"He's still got a long ways to go, but I love what I see in him every day at practice. He's very competitive. He's been great in the meeting room. He loves football. He gets football. I don't see any of the off the field stuff at all showing up with that kid. He's been great with us."

The other rookie praised by O'Neil was Blair, a fifth-round selection out of Appalachian State.

The 49ers defensive coordinator envisions using the 6-foot-4, 270-pound defender across the defensive front.

"He's a guy we'll probably create some packages for," O'Neil said. "You can't ignore his play-making ability out here at practice so far. He makes plays wherever he's aligned along the front. Whether it's at the nose, the three, end, he's a guy that you can move around and do some things with him from a pressure standpoint. We're going to teach him some drop stuff. ... He's a big part of our plans in the next couple weeks."Niner Notes

– O'Neil made sure to applaud more defensive coaches than Hafley in his opening remarks. "As a group, I think they're unbelievable teachers. They're doing a great job with their guys. We have a lot of young guys in those position rooms, and just where they're at right now from a schematic standpoint has been great. I think we work together as a group. It's really good, the competitiveness of the group. So, I'm so fired up to coach with the group of guys we have on the defensive side of the ball."

– San Francisco continued to rotate its inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman on Saturday. Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong have alternated turns with the first defense. O'Neil said it has been the most discussed position battle by the coaching staff. "We probably talk about that more as a defensive staff than anything else right now because we have three really good players competing for that job. If all three of them deserve to play, then they all will. If somebody clearly separates themselves, then that'll be the guy that we go with."

– The use of mini boxing gloves has helped cornerbacks focus more on footwork than grasping receivers. O'Neil explained that the idea was first utilized during his time with the Cleveland Browns. "We started that a few years ago when the NFL put in the new rule about all the holding downfield and it seemed like every pass play in the preseason, there was a flag. When we were in Cleveland, we started using them with those DBs and they liked them and we felt like it really allowed our guys to get better and stop grabbing downfield. So, we just brought it here to San Fran with us. We still are probably grabbing a little bit too much downfield, but I think our guys have gotten a lot better through the first week of camp."

– According to a few social media posts by players like Bruce Miller on Saturday night, it appears as though the players and coaching staff went to a local bowling alley for some good old fashioned fun. It's nice to see this taking place in the dog days of camp.

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