A 49ers practice is a microcosm of the dedication and discipline required to compete at the highest level in the NFL. It’s a symphony of skill development, teamwork, and conditioning that prepares these athletes for the rigors of the regular season. Fred Warner’s presence on the field serves as a shining example of the commitment and leadership that define the San Francisco 49ers. As the sun sets on another practice day, the promise of the upcoming season looms large, and the 49ers stand ready to face whatever challenges come their way.
What’s a 49ers practice like? We followed Fred Warner during longest session of camp
By Matt Barrows
SANTA CLARA — Early to bed, early to rise?
Well, that’s half right for Fred Warner.
During training camp, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker is under the covers at the team hotel by 10 p.m. and tries to remain there until 7:30 the next morning.
“I’m huge on sleep,” Warner said. “So I try to maximize the hours, especially during training camp.”
I thought it would be interesting to give readers a different view of a 49ers training camp session — a blow-by-blow of what occurs on a given day — by following one player from start to finish. I got lucky and picked Friday’s practice, which turned out to be the most grueling of any so far this summer. It lasted more than two hours on a day when the temperature reached 82 degrees.
The focus of the reporting wasn’t happenstance. Warner is the most consistently animated of all the 49ers, the guy who rallies teammates — and the fans — before, during and after practice. That is, if you want action, watch Warner.
The following is a tick-tock of what happened Friday. I interviewed Warner the following day after practice.
49ers training camp: Five things we’ve learned through the first 9 practices
9:58: Warner walks onto the field for the first time, helmet in hand, and is immediately spotted by some of the three dozen Marines from Bridgeport Marine Corps base who are seated in the bleachers.
“There’s Fred! Fred! Freeeeeed!”
That will be a refrain throughout the morning. Deebo Samuel, Kittle, McCaffrey and Warner seem to be the most popular 49ers, and there is more than one “All-Pro Fred!” shoutout while Warner kneels on the sideline between series. He raises his hand in acknowledgment but doesn’t turn around.
“I’m starting to see some 54s out there,” he says. “Usually it’s just the Deebo Samuels and the Christian McCaffreys. Now I’ve got people showing up, buying my jersey. It means I’m doing something right.”
9:59: Warner stops by the so-called hydration station, a tent-and-table setup just outside the team’s weight room. It’s not a quick pit stop for some Gatorade. Warner spends a full three minutes there, longer than any other player. The station includes everything from collagen shots to beta alanine tablets, and Warner takes advantage of all of it. It’s like he’s at a hydration buffet table.
“They have different powders — pre-workout powders — over there,” he says. “Gotta get a scoop of that. I drink some of the electrolytes. Yeah, I’m trying to get all those little things in before practice and make sure I’m setting myself up to do my best.”
10:03: The 49ers go into what they call their activation period. Warner does everything from planks to wall sits to working with bands. It’s not quite time for the team’s formal stretch. This period might be considered the pre-stretch stretch.
10:15: In an effort to pump up the crowd, Warner runs from the west practice field where the Marines are located to the east side stands where most of the fans are situated. He wants maximum energy for practice. This is a daily occurrence.
10:17: The 49ers begin their walk-through. They had a decidedly light practice a day earlier, and a number of defensive starters didn’t take part. Aside from Nick Bosa, every defensive starter is present Friday. Warner takes a few swigs of water when the equipment manager walks by. He has to be the most hydrated player on the squad.
10:28: The formal team-wide stretch begins. Warner throws his long hair back and puts on his helmet for the first time. For the last four years, the stretch has ended with Warner running at full speed and then doing what he calls a “jump flex” with Bosa. It’s just what it sounds like — two guys bumping each other while they flex. With Bosa currently holding out, Warner instead does a daily chest bump with defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
10:32: The team gathers briefly in the middle of the field before practice begins in earnest. This is when someone delivers a quick message to the team. That someone is usually Warner.
“I let them know we’re in that point of camp now — a full three sets of (padded practices),” Warner says. “Now guys are starting to get sore legs, their minds might start wandering. And this is where you really have to put your head down and grind through the hard days. … So I wanted to emphasize the competition part of it. There’s always going to be a winner and a loser. Even though it is a team, it’s still competition at the end of the day.”
10:33: “Welcome to the Jungle” blasts over the loudspeakers. If you’re hearing classic rock at a 49ers practice, you know it’s a special teams period. Kyle Shanahan is obsessed with Lil Wayne and loves hip-hop, but special teams coordinator Brian Schneider leans toward the hair band era. Think Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC.
Because Warner and fellow starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw aren’t core special teamers, this is when they practice their juggling. Linebackers coach Johnny Holland has them juggle footballs or softballs for five minutes each day in effort to sharpen their hand-eye coordination and, in theory, boost their interceptions.
“I think it’s pretty close depending on the day,” Warner says when asked which linebacker is the better juggler. “We’re neck and neck. We’ll see. We’ve gotta start incorporating a fourth ball in there.”
10:46: During individual drills, Warner and the other linebackers practice firing out of their stance from beneath an awning-like contraption the team calls “the chute.” It’s only 5 feet high, which means a 6-foot-3 linebacker like Warner is forced to get low.
“Pad level is everything,” Warner says. “That’s just a basic start of every single rep.”
10:56: One-on-one drills begin with the linebackers taking on the running backs and tight ends. The youngsters get most of the repetitions, and Warner is tapped for just one snap, the first one in which he’s matched against McCaffrey.
In a previous practice, Warner felt he “opened the gate” — got out of his stance and started running downfield — too early and gave McCaffrey an easy release off the line.
“I told myself this time I was going to be real patient at the line,” he says. “And once he committed I was going to get hands on him to disrupt him. And I did that. I played it perfectly, the way I wanted to.”
Despite the close coverage, however, McCaffrey still makes the catch on a short crossing-route throw from Brandon Allen, which has Warner stomping mad. He’s still miffed a day later. He doubts whether Allen, who had to pump because Warner initially had good coverage, would have stuck with the play in a game situation. This is a theme with Warner: Never capitulate to the offense, even when you’re talking about a snap from the day before.
“In real life, (Allen is) coming off that route once it’s disrupted,” he insists. “He’s going to his next read. But, of course, in one-on-ones he was trying to make it look as pretty as possible.”
11:04: The group install period begins. This is the only time Shanahan works with the defense during practice. He takes on the role of quarterback, throwing half-speed passes while the defenders work on new play calls and alignments. This is another period in which the coaches mostly are focused on younger players, and Warner takes a moment to chat up former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, who is one of this year’s coaching fellows.
“He was asking me if I was doing MMA in the offseason,” Warner says. “I told him I just stick to the boxing because in MMA you get rolled up with your knees and stuff. And he said he did MMA back when he was playing. I’ve heard too many stories of guys tearing their ACLs and blowing their knees out ’cause you get in a weird, awkward position on the ground.”
11:13: The 49ers have their first snap in an 11-on-11 situation. Warner and the first-team defense will take 31 such snaps during the practice, which is roughly half a game’s worth of action. Warner takes on Kittle on one snap and center Jake Brendel on his next. It’s a good day for McCaffrey and the team’s other running backs, and Warner concedes that the offense may have won the day on first and second downs.
But it wasn’t quite as one-sided as it looked.
“Kyle’s big on wanting to protect the team and that kind of stuff,” he says. “So sometimes running backs get to the hole and it seems like they’re gashing us. But really there’s a guy there kind of tagging him off. And I’m like, ‘Can we just lay a hat on ’em and let ’em know they’re not running through our defense?’”
That is, sometimes there’s a perception there’s been a long carry when there really isn’t.
“Hate it. I hate it. It’s horrible,” Warner says. “If DeMeco (Ryans) was here he’d be livid. But that’s just the linebacker in me.”
11:53: The offense begins a move-the-ball drill. Warner blitzes on the first snap, forcing Brock Purdy to throw the ball away. A few plays after that he whips rookie tight end Cameron Latu to the ground. Four plays later, Purdy throws a 20-yard touchdown pass to Samuel, who is slow to get up. Warner is the lone defensive player who walks over to see if Samuel is OK. He is and eventually rejoins practice.
12:29: Backup linebacker Marcelino McCrary-Ball puts a huge hit on rookie fullback Jack Colletto that knocks Colletto to the ground and dislodges the ball. The starting linebackers on the sideline appear to enjoy the collision. Shanahan isn’t pleased.
12:32: Three horns blast and what will likely be the longest practice of the season is over. Warner takes off his jersey and shoulder pads and goes into public relations mode, signing autographs and taking selfies with fans. He also meets with players from Real Betis of the La Liga soccer league and presents them with a jersey.
12:52: There are eight players still on the field. One of them is Warner, who is eager to get tips from cornerback Charvarius Ward on what to do in man-to-man situations like the one he had with McCaffrey earlier in the day. Warner practices his coverage against receivers Willie Snead IV and Ray-Ray McCloud III.
“If I’m working against receivers after practice, that’s only going to make it easier when I’m going against running backs or tight ends in games,” he notes. “And Ray-Ray is one of the shiftiest cats out there.”
1:09: Warner walks off the field and into the weight room.
The rest of his day will include lifting weights, eating lunch, meetings and a late afternoon walk-through session. He usually leaves the team facility at 6:30 p.m. and drives home to check in with his wife and to eat a dinner prepared by his personal chef. Then it’s back to the hotel in time for curfew.
On Friday, however, there was a wrinkle. The longest practice of the year left him so tired he fell asleep on the sofa and had to wake himself up to get back to the hotel in time.
If he had been late?
“I’m sure I’d be all right,” he says. “But I don’t want to be the guy who’s missing curfew. It’s a bad look to the rest of the team.”
(Photos: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)
Matt Barrows is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the 49ers. He joined The Athletic in 2018 and has covered the 49ers since 2003. He was a reporter with The Sacramento Bee for 19 years, four of them as a Metro reporter. Before that he spent two years in South Carolina with The Hilton Head Island Packet. Follow Matt on Twitter @MattBarrows