SANTA CLARA — Six seconds remained on the clock. Trey Lance needed to finish off a lengthy drive with a touchdown. And he did.
How the 49ers’ new starting quarterback produced those points was as interesting as it was necessary.
“In that situation, everyone is on the goal line, and I’m on the 20-yard line. If I run, the game is over,” Lance said. “I’m not going to run through eight guys in that situation.”
Flash back to Lance’s first of only two starts his rookie season. At Arizona, trailing 7-0, looking to cap a 94-yard drive, Lance ran for the right pylon on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, only to get frighteningly slammed short of the goal line.
So here he was in Saturday’s two-minute drill, closing down an early-August practice at an up-and-down training camp. He had his best targets on the field: camp MVP Brandon Aiyuk, still catching-up-to-speed Deebo Samuel, ever-bullish George Kittle and new slot receiver Ray-Ray McCloud.
With his linemen fending off a four-man rush, Lance moved up in the pocket and, in off-schedule fashion, discovered Ray-Ray McCloud open over the middle for a touchdown strike.
“I know I’ve got to get the ball out, give those guys a shot and Ray-Ray made a great play,” Lance said.
Thus, Saturday was a good day in Lance’s progress report. He hit camp-highs with 12 completions on 19 attempts, including three completions to George Kittle on that last drive and a much-needed catch by Deebo Samuel, who slightly nudged ace cornerback Charvarius Ward to create separation on his crossing route.
Now, don’t go thinking the 22-year-old dual threat is a perfect passer. He has a 54-percent completion rate, and he’s had a pass intercepted in 5-of-9 practices, with Jimmie Ward doing the honors Saturday on the drive preceding the eight-play march for the Lance-to-McCloud touchdown.
Part of Lance’s sub-par completion percentage can be attributed to: 1.) drops, such as Jauan Jennings’ Saturday; 2.) pocket pressure, though Lance adroitly defended his linemen; 3.) arguably the NFL’s best defense; and, 4.) off-target throws that typically sail high.
Lance notably ran on two plays Saturday’s final drive. A narrative he’s facing this camp and for the foreseeable future is when he should abandon a pass play and run. To which he said Saturday: “I haven’t really changed my mindset as far as … no one’s telling me not to run, or to run. Just play fast.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan, poker face and all, said the offense changes “not really at all” with Lance pressing over it instead of Jimmy Garoppolo, who remains stowed on a side field throwing during this camp while awaiting a trade or release.
“When you have the threat of a running QB, it can change defenses, and you adjust,” Shanahan said. “We had stuff in last year and worked on stuff. … If they don’t account for him, he gets to run.”
Lance’s best passing plays are emphatically going to Aiyuk. “He’s killing guys right now. He’s making some really big plays and separating himself,” said Lance, worked with Aiyuk a lot this offseason, both in Santa Clara and in Huntington Beach.
Lance’s most concerning pass plays, not surprisingly, are his misses to Samuel, who only joined practices Monday once he signed a contract extension. After Friday’s practice, Samuel stayed late to catch deep throws from Lance, as did McCloud. Saturday, Lance 40-yard shot fell incomplete to Samuel, who was walled off by Emmanuel Moseley. Also, Lance’s first deep shot in full-team action missed an open Kittle.
Shanahan said he wasn’t aware of that extra session until reporters relayed it to him Saturday morning, but he added: “I’m glad they did that.”
A Lance-to-Samuel connection is not brand new. A 45-yard touchdown pass in last season’s home-finale win over Houston — Lance’s fourth and final touchdown throw among just 71 passes last season — teased what must be a vital combination over the coming years.
“It’ll come,” Shanahan said of the Lance-to-Samuel pairing.
Added Lance: “It’s been awesome to have (Samuel) back. In the locker room, the energy is back, and in the meeting rooms. He’s a high-energy guy, fun to be around. Everyone knows what he does on the field.”
Everyone is learning day by day what Lance can do. That is this season’s undisputed theme.
— Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw’s reps remain limited as he returns from 2021 knee surgery, but he started Saturday’s session and immediately bulled over center Jake Brendel and Lance on the first snap, which was a handoff to Elijah Mitchell.
— Defensive end Kemoko Turay briefly exited practice with a leg strain.
— Wide receiver Marcus Johnson made a catch while practicing in a non-contact jersey, because of Tuesday’s concussion-causing hit from Fred Warner.
— Jordan Mills, freshly signed on a one-year deal, filled in at right tackle for Jaylon Moore, who’s sidelined by a leg strain.
— Willie Snead IV practiced after being signed out of Friday’s audition with two other receivers. Snead played in Shanahan’s system as a 2014 rookie in the Cleveland Browns’ camp.
— Rookie Danny Gray caught a deep pass from Lance in one-on-one drills, but Brock Purdy managed to overthrow the speedy Gray in full-team action, to which Gray said afterward: “I’m still thinking about that one right now.”
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