Dante Pettis impresses during 49ers training camp

SANTA CLARA - Dante Pettis looks amazing.

The rookie wide receiver has long, curly bleached-blond hair with blue tips he wraps in a black 49ers bandana. That’s his look in training camp.

“My age, we didn’t roll like that,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said recently. “Now, I feel like it’s kind of cool.”

When Pettis wears a helmet, his blue hair sticks out from the bottom and bounces as he runs to the line of scrimmage. A play starts, and his feet seem to go in eight different directions. He throws his head to the right, throws it back to the left, really selling those head fakes, jiggling those blue curls, and then he’s gone, somewhere up the sideline, the cornerback still trying to figure out where Pettis went and how he got there.

That’s a typical Pettis play.

“He’s almost like a basketball player,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “It’s like he’s crossover dribbling all the time. He’s very dynamic and quick. That’s what has gotten him where he is right now. I’m sure Kyle and those guys will tell you that he’s still got so much to learn about receiver play, especially in our offense, but I know everybody’s excited about what he’s capable of.”

Pettis showed his stuff on Wednesday when he took reps with the first-team offense. Pettis beat both of the 49ers’ starting cornerbacks - Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon.

Pettis made a 12-yard catch against Sherman, then made a 17-yard catch against Witherspoon and finally made a 45-yard touchdown catch against Witherspoon on the final play of practice.

Pettis generally has played well during training camp. He also has returned punts and kickoffs. He might become the primary punt returner as a rookie.

“We had him targeted very early in the draft,” Shanahan said recently. “We traded up to go get him because we knew he had a skill set that fit us. It’s sometimes hard to see in college because they don’t see a lot of man-to-man coverage. It’s so much zone. But you could see it sometimes.

“He was such a good kick returner and got so many opportunities returning the ball, you could see he had the movement with the ball in his hands. Now, it’s about getting him to do it in his routes. If you can make guys miss with your feet when you have the ball in your hand, you should be able to do it in routes, too. To combine that with his speed and his hands and his intelligence, which he is very smart, you feel pretty confident that he’s going to continue to get better.”

Pettis came to the 49ers interview room for the first time Thursday after practice.

“Hello,” he said in a quiet voice that didn’t match his loud hair.

A reporter asked him to describe his style of running.

“Different,” Pettis said. “My legs kick out, and I’m pigeon-toed, so my feet turn in. It’s just awkward for people to see. Defensive backs aren’t used to that. Maybe it throws them off.”

Pettis played college football at Washington, where he caught 22 touchdown passes his final two seasons combined. He played in a simple, collegiate spread offense. Now, he has to learn one of the most complex offenses in the NFL. Shanahan’s offense.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Pettis said. “Just hearing the plays, especially in this offense where there is so much going on, so many motions and shifts, different ways to get to different positions. We didn’t really have all of that at Washington. You would just get the signal, the play, look at it, and then line up and go. But here, you’ve got to go in the huddle, hear the play call, and then figure it out when you’re running to line up. It has taken a little bit of time to get used to, but I think I’m starting to get it down.”

Once he gets that part down, he’ll have to learn the complex coverages he will face from NFL defenses. Pac-12 defenses are notoriously soft and simplistic.

Pettis’ lack of exposure to NFL coverages shows when he runs routes over the middle.

When he’s one on one with a cornerback near the sideline, Pettis is tough to stop. When he’s running across the middle and looking back at the quarterback, he seems tentative, perhaps because he can’t see the linebackers and safeties - people who mean to harm him - and seems to expect contact that doesn’t always arrive. Occasionally, he drops passes.

When he learns NFL coverages, he’ll know where the linebackers and safeties are, and he’ll seem less tentative.

“Honestly, right now it’s just learning the playbook,” Pettis said. “Can’t really worry about too much else.”

Judging by his hair, he’s not the worrying type.

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