Rookie tight end George Kittle eager to prove himself with 49ers

SANTA CLARA - The 49ers have a long tradition of great tight ends. Rookie tight end George Kittle can't name one of them.

“I know Dwight Clark is an absolute savage,” Kittle said this week at his locker.”

“Clark was a wide receiver,” a reporter said.

“I count him as a tight end,” Kittle said.

“Have you heard of Brent Jones?”

“Say again?”

“Brent Jones.”


“Russ Francis?”


“Charle Young?”

“Charle what?”

“Charle Young.”

“No. How old are they?”

“They played in the '80s and '90s.”

“Oh, well that's not fair.”

Kittle was born in 1993. By then, Young and Francis had won Super Bowls and retired. And Jones was 30. He caught 68 passes for 735 yards and three touchdowns that year. It was the best season of his career.

Kittle is 24. He may not know the 49ers' past, but he's their future at tight end.

Like Jones, Kittle was a fifth-round pick. This season, Kittle has started seven games and caught 39 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns. Jones caught only two passes when he was a rookie. He didn't become a starter until his third season in the NFL. Kittle is one of many rookies who have become significant contributors for the 49ers this season. Last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, rookie wide receiver Trent Taylor, rookie running back Matt Breida and Kittle each scored a touchdown, and rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon made an interception.

“We had high expectations for them,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said recently. “We expected George to come in early and start for us in the beginning of the year. As a coach, you want (rookies) to play great right away, but you've got to realize you put them in roles they weren't fully ready for.

“All of them have been battling injuries. For rookies, when you battle injuries, how long the year lasts, they usually don't last all year. It's just too long and they're not used to it. Those guys have done a good job taking care of their bodies and coming back.”

Kittle injured his hamstring during training camp and missed the first preseason game. Week 3, he injured his hip. And Week 9, he injured his ankle and missed the following game against the New York Giants.

Now, he seems healthy for the first time this season. And the past two games, he caught seven passes for 94 yards and a touchdown.

“I see a lot of production,” LA Rams head coach Sean McVay said about Kittle on a conference call this week with Bay Area reporters. “I really enjoyed him coming out (of college). Kittle has a nice feel for some of those things where it might require him to read or recognize coverage and work different edges on guys. You see a good catch radius. He's sneaky athletic. Kyle has always done such a good job utilizing (tight ends). It's favorable for the skill set Kittle possess.”

How would Kittle describe his skill set? What does he take pride in?

“I'm a pretty good route runner,” he said. “I have a pretty good sense of space when I'm on the field running routes. I feel like I've got pretty good speed. And I've always prided myself (at blocking) in the run game, which is something you can always get better at and one thing I'm trying to get better at. It's something I really enjoy and I take a lot of pride in.”

Kittle excelled at blocking in college. But blocking college defenders isn't the same as blocking defenders in the NFL.

“The concept is the same,” Kittle said. “I've got to move this guy from Point A to Point B. It's just different types of athletes. In the Big Ten (at Iowa), I was used to facing big, thick guys that don't move too well. In the NFL, you've got 6-2, 250-pound defensive ends that are twice as agile.

“Every type of guy you block is completely different on how they play. It's a lot more specific to the person instead of just a generic, ‘You've got to do this and this to block a guy.' Which is really fun. It adds a whole new thing to the game.

“It's confusing at some points. It's a lot of information. But I like that as a tight end you have to know the whole offense. You're in on the run plays, you're in on pass protections, you're running routes - you're really doing everything. You get every aspect of the game on offense. I really enjoy that.”

Kittle arrives at the 49ers facility every morning between 6 and 6:30. His girlfriend drops him off, typically around the same time quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo pulls up in the parking lot. Garoppolo is a quasi-rookie. He has been in the NFL four seasons, but has started only six games.

“I usually snag lunch and dinner with him over at the café here (in the 49ers facility),” Kittle said. “Just happen to be sitting down at the same time, usually.”

What's it like to catch a pass from Garoppolo?

“He's really good at the touch of his ball,” Kittle said. “The difference between the third-down ball I caught (against the Jaguars) compared to the ball I scored on, they felt different. One is lofted, floating in the air. It's just meant for you to go up and pluck it. The other one, he's throwing it in a certain area for me to not get drilled, so that's more of a precision, bullet-type pass. Two completely different passes. Two perfect balls.”

Kittle is grateful for other things.

“I want to thank the fans for being supportive,” Kittle said. “Starting out 0-9 was hard, but they were there. We felt them. We're just happy that they enjoyed the last couple games. We've been on a little heater, and we're looking forward to building on that next year.”

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