Cue Broncos, 49ers.
“National Signing Day,” ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported, in the midst of the AFC Championship. The pick that the San Francisco 49ers needed to become an equal of the Titans had arrived.
And there was George Kittle, smiling at the all-day festivities held in the Florida capitol.
“I was a big fan of Jimmie,” Kittle said, referring to Jimmie Ward, the San Francisco cornerback who just left for the Buffalo Bills. “They traded me for Jimmie,” he said, “and I’m really happy for him.”
The 53rd pick in the NFL draft, the No. 3 tight end for the 49ers, had already proven it would be his year. Watching him flourish at UTEP while other recruits might have been risking risk of getting injured in their physical presence helped boost his confidence. He did not shy away from some physical contact against the bigger and stronger players he played against, getting his 15 catches for 297 yards and five touchdowns in 15 games in the double-wing offense.
But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Kittle has not been his stats, or the statistics of any other 49ers’ tight end. It is that he was so unremarkable a first season that he made his way into one of the least watched Super Bowls in NFL history.
Like many months before, Kittle had stayed in Florida. His list of practices and meetings was as long as his arms, in fact, and his tattoos outweighed his biceps. He looked fit and healthy, and even though coach Kyle Shanahan knew he would be a natural at tight end, there was no talk of Pro Bowl or Monday Night Football.
“He actually came in last year really, really, really tired,” Shanahan said, “and we had to change our blocking scheme and his speed. So he struggled to be fast. Then we got Kyle down there.”
Shanahan had taken offense to how the 49ers’ offense was going, and what he thought about the progress Kittle was making. Kittle reacted to Shanahan’s criticism like the youngster he was.
“I told him, ‘You can not be coming in and calling me fat. I was in the weight room every day doing 200, 300 extra curls,’” Shanahan said. “I just wanted him to know he was doing the right things.”
The changes they made was needed, Kittle said. He grew as a blocker, or, as Shanahan described, as “a special pass protector,” blocking in a different manner than he was before.
“He’s learned how to use his body and his power to his advantage,” Shanahan said. “If you watch him, he’s cutting hard. He’s a big guy that can catch and run like a track guy. He really changed our whole offense.”
Through all the off-field adversity, Kittle earned the respect of his coaches and teammates as a player. That’s something Shanahan said he learned from Eric Mangini, when he was a coach in the New York Jets. But there was a way for Kittle to make his impact even more direct.
After everyone else around him got seriously injured or released, Kittle wore No. 4 on the 49ers, which was also his number at UTEP. For the annual charity sports day, when kids get the chance to play, Kittle would be the person who could get one over on the opposition with a quick grab or big return.