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49ers turn up practice physicality on Kyle Shanahan's directive

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers are a little more than a week from their first preseason game, but coach Kyle Shanahan wants them to start getting closer to the real thing now.

It started when running back Carlos Hyde ran over rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in Wednesday's practice. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh downplayed it afterward, noting that Hyde caught Witherspoon off guard. But Shanahan was just fine with the collision and noted Thursday that it taught Witherspoon an important lesson about reacting and not getting caught flat-footed when a receiver blocks down on a safety.

As it turned out, Wednesday's hit was simply an appetizer for a greater emphasis on playing physical with the Niners now nearly a week into training camp.

"I wanted them to turn it up a little bit more," Shanahan said. "Today was our fourth day in pads, I think. I think guys are getting comfortable with it and we had the day off two days ago so I'm just trying to get back to how we want to practice, how to be physical but still not take people to the ground and I thought they did a better job of that today."

There were multiple big collisions Thursday, culminating with safety Vinnie Sunseri delivering a big hit over the middle to close the workout. The hit initially drew a flag for unnecessary roughness, but that was nullified by another official. Shanahan ended the practice right then.

Earlier, tight end Vance McDonald gave Witherspoon yet another taste of NFL life by dropping his shoulder into him at the goal line for a would-be touchdown. Rookie free safety Lorenzo Jerome got a smidgeon of payback on Witherspoon's behalf with a big hit after a Hyde catch that ended with the running back on the ground.

To the 49ers' credit, none of those hits have led to scuffles. They generally end with the player who was knocked over getting up and going back about his business. Shanahan has to be pleased with how his players are responding to his directive without taking it too far.

Other news, notes and observations from Thursday's practice:

  • Shanahan addressed the release of WR Bruce Ellington, which was made official Thursday morning. Ellington, a fourth-round pick in 2014, battled injuries throughout his time with the team. When he came back this year, he entered a room that had plenty of smaller, shiftier receivers who already seemed to be ahead of him in the pecking order."Bruce has done a good job with us but we have a bunch of guys who are very similar in their skillset," Shanahan said. "We have to get some different skill sets in and it gives Bruce a chance to go somewhere else."

    The Niners have not yet made a corresponding move.

  • The 49ers ended practice with a series of wind sprints, but Shanahan said that was pre-planned and related to conditioning."Yesterday we didn't move the ball the first time and I thought our team seemed in pretty good shape," Shanahan said. "And then when we did move the ball on two long drives I could see guys get a little bit gassed so I just had them condition a little bit more. It wasn't punishment or anything."

  • Shanahan gave a day off to some of the longer-tenured players on the team such as left tackle Joe Staley, center Jeremy Zuttah, linebacker NaVorro Bowman and receiver Pierre Garcon. That offered a lot of opportunities for others to get some run with the starting groups. Most notable was rookie linebacker Reuben Foster, who worked at weakside linebacker with the second strong and filled in for Bowman in the middle.Foster had a couple of sacks rushing from inside and Shanahan said he thought Foster had a solid day, albeit with mistakes. Brock Coyle also helped replace Bowman before leaving with an apparent rib or chest injury. Daniel Kilgore got the bulk of the work at center with the first-team offense while John Theus and relocating right tackle Trent Brown got the snaps at left tackle in Staley's place. Garry Gilliam moved in at right tackle when Brown moved to the left side. The Niners used a rotation including Aldrick Robinson and DeAndre Smelter in place of Garcon, though not any one wideout seemed to be his primary replacement because of the moving parts.

  • Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (ankle) did not practice again with Chris Jones stepping in for him for most of the day and Solomon Thomas getting work in sub packages. Running back Tim Hightower also departed practice early with an undisclosed injury.

  • Eric Reid (ankle) returned to his usual spot at strong safety with Sunseri filling in at free safety for Jimmie Ward (hamstring) and Jaquiski Tartt (ribs).

  • Zane Beadles got a longer look with the starters at left guard as Joshua Garnett rotated with him. Garnett had taken most of those snaps.

  • Quarterback Brian Hoyer and receiver Marquise Goodwin continue to hook up for big plays. Hoyer hit Goodwin on a deep ball over cornerback Dontae Johnson and Sunseri. The ball was a bit underthrown but Goodwin continues to show a knack for adjusting to the throw and making plays. Later, Hoyer hit Goodwin in stride on a crossing route and Goodwin turned on the speed to run through all tackling angles for what would have been a long catch-and-run touchdown.

  • Linebacker RRay-Ray Armstrong intercepted rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard. ... Hyde had a particularly effective day as a pass-catcher though he didn't find much running room. ... Rookie running back Joe Williams did find success on the ground with a pair of long runs off left tackle. ... McDonald had what was his most productive pass-catching practice of camp, including a long gain between two defenders over the middle. ... Fullback Kyle Juszczyk continues to be a standout performer, doing a little bit of everything as a runner, blocker and pass-catcher. Shanahan clearly has big plans for him.

  • The 49ers are back at it Friday morning.