Richie James

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks is not shy about reaching out to his former NFL team to provide tips on college prospects he knows well.

Hanks, who played eight seasons with the 49ers (1991-98) and won a Super Bowl, is the Senior Associate Commissioner of Conference USA, which consists of 14 football-playing universities.

“We want to make sure and give our young men every opportunity to be viewed by NFL clubs,” Hanks said on The 49ers Insider Podcast. “So I tend to call my peer group around the NFL to make sure they’re paying attention to our players.

“Oh, I bug everybody, (including) the 49ers with John Lynch and Martin Mayhew, that whole staff. They do a great job of sourcing talent from Division III all the way up to the (power five). They go to where the good players are, and we have some good players in the conference.”

The 49ers have six players from Conference USA on their roster, including such draft picks as safety Tarvarius Moore (Southern Mississippi), and receivers Trent Taylor (Louisiana Tech) and Richie James (Middle Tennessee State).

The 49ers signed quarterback Nick Mullens (Southern Mississippi) as an undrafted rookie in 2017, and he started eight games for the club in 2018.

One of the top prospects from Conference USA this year is Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant, who undoubtedly is on the 49ers’ radar.

The 49ers will be looking to add a tight end in the draft to pair with George Kittle. Bryant was the 2019 Mackey Award winner as the top tight end in college football.

“He reminds me of Brent Jones,” Hanks said, “a good pass-catching tight end and a willing blocker.”

Hanks also mentioned defensive back Amik Robertson of Louisiana Tech. Hanks envisions Robertson overcoming his less-than-ideal size (5-foot-8, 187 pounds) to carve out a 10-year NFL career with a playing style that reminds some of Tyrann Mathieu.

With the restrictions on private workouts and pro days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanks said he believes the college athletes from Conference USA or from any college program who were not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine are at an inherent disadvantage this year.

“Those players are in a bit of a tough spot, in the sense that teams won’t be able to circle back and get on campus and really take a look at them,” Hanks said.

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One Conference USA prospect who might not suffer from not being invited to the combine is Middle Tennessee defensive end Tyshun Render.

New England coach Bill Belichick went to campus in late-February to pace Render through a workout while most of his NFL peers were in Indianapolis for the combine.

“Conference USA has been fortunate,” Hanks said. “We’re a football-playing conference in every sense. We put a lot of resources toward football and NFL clubs understand that they can come get good players.”

49ERS FROM CONFERENCE USA
LB Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic
WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee State
S Tarvarius Moore, Southern Mississippi
QB Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech
RB Jeff Wilson Jr., North Texas

Kyle Shanahan explains why Dante Pettis was not 49ers' punt returner

Kyle Shanahan explains why Dante Pettis was not 49ers' punt returner

INDIANAPOLIS -- No punt returner in the history of college football was as dynamic as Dante Pettis.

But in two seasons since the 49ers traded up to take him in the second round of the 2018 draft, Pettis has gotten only 11 opportunities to return punts.

All of Pettis’ chances came during his rookie season. While his play time at wide receiver dwindled to non-existent over the second half of the recently completed season, he was not even able to make a contribution special teams.

Why? Coach Kyle Shanahan said it was as simple as this: Richie James was better.

“We didn’t think he was our best guy,” Shanahan said of Pettis at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Pettis set the NCAA record with nine punt returns for touchdowns. After Pettis visited the 49ers, the club selected him with the No. 44 overall draft pick. As a rookie, he fumbled twice while averaging just 3.0 yards on nine returns. He also sustained a knee injury on an early season return against the Los Angeles Chargers.

In 2019, James was reliable. He was fifth in the NFL in return yards and did not have a fumble on 33 punt returns while averaging a respectable 8.0 yards per return.

Shanahan said he wants Pettis to put up a battle to compete with James for the job in 2020. He said he has expressed that expectation to Pettis, too.

“He knows that,” Shanahan said. “I think he’s got a chance to be (the punt returner). But we felt more comfortable with Richie. And I hope Dante tries to take that job from him.

“It’s his decision. He’s got to show it. I guess, it comes down to my decision, but he should make it for me.”

Pettis averaged 17.3 yards on 27 receptions and caught five touchdown passes as a rookie. But his production dropped off in his second season, as he caught just 11 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He will be fighting for a spot on the 2020 team.

Shanahan said he wants Pettis to be on a mission during his second offseason to come back as a stronger, better and more-focused player. He said Pettis took a “documented” step back in his second season.

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Shanahan said second-year players who struggle after promising rookie seasons can go either way.

“They keep being like that, and they usually filter out,” Shanahan said, “or it’s a wakeup call for them and they come back and you see It in April. They treated January to April so much different than the year before, and then it usually changes their career.”

49ers roster analysis: Kicking-game stability is big positive change

49ers roster analysis: Kicking-game stability is big positive change

This is the final installment of a nine-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020, and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

Today, a look at the 49ers’ special teams.

Under contract (signed through)

Kicker Robbie Gould (2022)
Punter Mitch Wishnowsky (2022)
Long snapper Kyle Nelson (2022)

Expiring contracts

None.

What needs to happen

A year ago, the 49ers had uncertainty at kicker, punter and long snapper. Now, the organization is set for a while.

Each of the 49ers’ specialists is signed through the 2022 season. Unless something dramatic happens, the 49ers do not need to do anything with those spots for at least a couple of seasons.

Return man Richie James was solid on kickoffs and punts. He did not mishandle a punt during the regular season but muffed his first opportunity of Super Bowl LIV. Shanahan said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that he wants to see Dante Pettis elevate his game and challenge James for the punt-return job.

[RELATED: 49ers roster analysis: Future secondary needs warrant action now]

Expectations

Gould got off to a rough start as the 49ers went through three long-snappers before Nelson returned after serving a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Gould missed a career-high eight field-goal attempts, including going 0-for-4 from beyond 50 yards.

After getting more time with Wishnowsky and Nelson, Gould came on strong and was named NFC Special-Teams Player of the Month for December, when he kicked field goals as time expired to beat the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams.

Wishnowky had a good rookie season. He tied for 12th in the NFL with a net average of 41.6 yards per punt. He won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in November for a game against the Arizona Cardinals. Wishnowsky also handled the kickoff chores, but that area of his game needs a lot of improvement.