SANTA CLARA -- From feeling like lost freshmen on the 49ers' campus, Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir are finding their way.
Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower has the unique position of working with many young players trying to earn a spot on the final 53-man roster. Rookies and undrafted players on the bubble try to contribute on special teams to raise their value and the coordinator sees it all.
When Lenoir and Thomas first arrived in Santa Clara they were so wide-eyed that Hightower called on Jimmie Ward to take them under his wing. The strategy worked and the coach has seen quite a difference in how the young defensive backs have been performing.
“I've seen it from, especially, in particular Ambry Thomas and D-Mo. Those guys have grown from game one to game two at a rapid pace. The guys are picking up everything as they go. It's just repetition at everything.
“I've seen those guys grow. What’s interesting is a lot of guys don't play special teams coming out of college because they're all the superstars. So, you really have to teach them and mold them and train them and rekindle the fire for them to play special teams.”
In the 49ers' two preseason games combined, Lenoir has been on the field for 25 special teams plays and Thomas for 21. Learning another skill set can be a challenge, especially when you’re simply trying to keep your head above water in your new environment.
The pair of rookie defensive backs have also spent a fair amount of time playing on defense. Lenoir and Thomas have recorded over 100 defensive snaps each over the two exhibitions.
“Some places are different,” Hightower said. “Alabama they play a lot of special teams. LSU, those guys play special teams at times. But not every place, their stars don't play special teams. So, you really have to teach them the fundamentals and you really have to make sure you grow them.”
The 49ers have several players who will make the final roster after developing into valuable contributors on special teams. Raheem Mostert might be the best example of a player who originally was so vital as a gunner that it was impossible for the team to let him go. Now, the former special teamer is the starting ball carrier for the 49ers.
Mostert is not the only player who coaches up the younger, less experienced players on how to improve their special teams play. Hightower is thankful for how the support comes from across the board.
“I think it's critically important,” Hightower said. “Even George Kittle, believe it or not. He's one of the leaders that gets guys going and gets them around. And Fred Warner is the same way.
“So, we have a culture where guys embrace special teams and they grab the young guys and they get them and they teach them and they show him. So, it's like having extra coaches on the field to be honest, it's critically important.”