Why this 49ers player can steal a starting job during training camp

San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) Mandatory Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) Mandatory Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports /

He wasn’t pegged to be a starter right away. But opportunities for 49ers rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga could give him a shot to run with the first team.

The overwhelming majority of San Francisco 49ers discussions about which rookies wind up starting this season have centered on first-year quarterback Trey Lance and whether or not he can unseat the veteran, Jimmy Garoppolo, as QB1 from day one.

Understandable. Lance was the No. 3 overall pick from this year’s NFL Draft. And quarterbacks, no matter which team, always generate the biggest conversations.

Lost in the discussion somewhat, however, are some of the other bids for starting jobs out there.

And the Niners have a juicy one developing at strong safety.

49ers may see Talanoa Hufanga starting at safety awfully soon

Fifth-round draft picks rarely garner the attention, but that’s historically been a place where San Francisco has had some luck. Look no further than the 2017 selection of a relatively unknown tight end at the time, George Kittle.

Now, this isn’t to say one of the 49ers’ three Round 5 selections from this year’s draft, former USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, is going to take a Kittle-like ascent.

But the opportunity certainly is there to make an impact right away.

Coming out of college, Hufanga was known for his violent, all-over-the-field kind of play, which resulted in him netting four interceptions over six games for the Trojans in 2020 along with three sacks. As a run-stopper, Hufanga was regularly around the ball, and even his pass-coverage skills were exemplary.

Yet there were concerns about his straight-line speed and whether or not he’d have the ability to match NFL-level tight ends and running backs while in coverage.

So far through training camp, those worries haven’t been an issue.

Take a look at this one practice report from KNBR 680:

"His timing on some of the 49ers’ inside zone and inside gap scheme runs was uncanny for a rookie. He met fellow rookie Elijah Mitchell at the line of scrimmage a couple of times, closed down Trey Lance on an outside zone read and played crucially tight coverage on the coverage sack Lance (theoretically) took.Kyle Shanahan said after practice that Hufanga has been what the 49ers expected and that he’s flashed similarities to fellow Samoan and now Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu, who Hufanga worked with over the summer."

“I mean, he loves to run around and loves to act like Troy Polamalu out there,” Shanahan later told reporters. “Still got a ways to go before he’s a Hall of Famer, but now he’s done a good job. He enjoys his presence out there. He has fun. You can tell he enjoys playing football. He fits in well.”

Now, it’s one thing for a rookie to impress with second-string teammates and to occasionally catch the eye of Shanahan. It’s another for that rookie to immediately seize a starting job.

But there’s a context where Hufanga might find himself in a position to do this right away.

What Talanoa Hufanga must do for 49ers to make him a starter

Safety is one of the more crowded positions on the Niners’ offseason roster. Reserve-candidate safeties like Tavon Wilson and Tony Jefferson have certainly done enough in camp to warrant roster spots this season, and both have far more experience than Hufanga, having both started at various points over their respective careers.

But the biggest context for ascending to a first-team safety might be the potential void left by the presumed starter, Jaquiski Tartt, who was placed on the physically unable-to-perform list with the same toe injury that prematurely ended his season last year.

Related Story: 3 things to expect from Talanoa Hufanga in 2021

Whether or not Tartt comes back will be the thing to monitor here. If Tartt starts the season off on the PUP list or is delegated to another injury list, the door should be wide open for someone like Hufanga to make an ascent.

Sure, San Francisco might employ a more experienced defensive back like Wilson or Jefferson. But the 49ers could also bank on Hufanga’s potential upside.

By almost every account during training camp, Hufanga’s efforts are getting noticed for all the right reasons.

A final week of camp will go a long way towards determining where Hufanga falls on the preseason pecking order, and he’s clearly going to be one of the many players worth watching when Week 1 of the preseason rolls around on Aug. 14.

Should Hufanga’s strong efforts continue and Tartt stays injured, the former USC standout will have as good a shot as any other at seizing a starting bid right out of the gate.

Next. 4 rookies who have impressed the most during 49ers training camp. dark