SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There aren't many 31-year-old running backs in the NFL, let alone any who believe they have their best football ahead of them. But the San Francisco 49ers' Tim Hightower actually fits the description.
The reasons for Hightower's belief that the best is yet to come stems from two things. One, the fact that he missed nearly four full seasons in the middle of his career because of injury, leaving him with more gas in the tank than most backs his age. The second is the man who will coach him daily on his new team.
"Getting a chance to work with [running backs] coach Bobby Turner, he’s the best in the business," Hightower said. "Coach Turner does a heck of a job, not just in the scheme but in preparing you week in and week out and really demanding your best every single day. For me, the older you get, sometimes those technique things you can kind of take for granted. So for me to take another step in my career, getting a chance to work in this system with this coaching staff was a positive thing for me."
Scrolling back through Turner's more than two decades coaching running backs in the NFL reveals that the chance to work in his and the Shanahan family's system has been a positive thing for nearly every running back who has played for him. Regardless of size, speed or draft status, the list of running backs who have succeeded in the preferred outside zone scheme meticulously taught by Turner is long enough to make Santa Claus jealous.
Turner's specialty has become taking mid- to late-round picks or undrafted rookies and turning them into 1,000-plus yard rushers. He did it for Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins, then with the Atlanta Falcons with Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator. Now he is aiming to do it again in San Francisco with Kyle Shanahan as head coach.
Among the mid- to late-round picks to rush for more than 1,000 yards under Turner's tutelage are Alfred Morris (sixth round), Terrell Davis (sixth round), Mike Anderson (sixth round), Olandis Gary (fourth round) and Devonta Freeman (fourth round). Turner also has gotten 1,000-plus-yard seasons out of players drafted earlier, such as Clinton Portis (second round), Tatum Bell (second round) and Reuben Droughns (third round).
In 15 seasons with the Broncos, Turner had a running back exceed 1,000 rushing yards 11 times, including a four-year stretch in which four different running backs did it.
From the outside looking in, it would appear that playing in Shanahan's outside zone scheme with Turner as the position coach is all that's needed to be effective. Not true, says Turner.
"When it comes down to it, a lot of people say you can plug anybody in there," Turner said. "No, it’s like a marriage, it’s got to be a perfect fit. It’s hand in glove. It’s our responsibility to find the correct people and then to teach those guys and for those guys to run with vision."
So what are the qualities that Turner seeks from someone before wedding them to his system?
"Number one is toughness," Turner said. "Yeah, we want the obvious. We want guys to have speed, foot quickness, cutting ability. They also have to understand about the patience. I want a young man who is coachable. Someone that’s willing to learn and willing to grow. Myself as a coach, as a teacher but I’m constantly learning from my players."
For now, as the Niners prepare to wrap up their first offseason program under Shanahan, Turner still is learning about his players. The 49ers' running back depth chart went through a drastic makeover this offseason, with Carlos Hyde the only returnee who has received substantial carries in a San Francisco uniform. The 49ers signed Hightower as a free agent, used a fourth-round pick on Utah's Joe Williams, traded for Denver's Kapri Bibbs and signed Matt Breida as an undrafted free agent.
All impressed Turner to varying degrees during organized team activities, including Hyde, who still is adapting to the system after having his ups and downs in the inside zone preferred by the previous coaching staff.
The good news for all of the running backs is that nobody knows the system better than Turner, and he makes himself available at all times to offer guidance.
"Bobby has been phenomenal," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "The guy is just a wealth of knowledge. He’s had so much success with so many different types of backs in this league that it’s a great opportunity just to each day sit in there and take in what he’s teaching us. He’s been in this system for I don’t know how many years and been coaching for decades. You can go to him about anything in the offense, any position, any play and he’s usually got an answer for you."
While Turner has a long history of success and hiring him was one of Shanahan's first priorities after taking the Niners job, there's still plenty of work to be done. Shanahan has described understanding where to run in the outside zone scheme as an "art form." Like any good art, this one won't be perfected overnight.
"It’s definitely not going to happen in one offseason to be great," Turner said. "But we are doing our best and the players are working hard. The bottom line is you make a commitment and you believe in it. Starting with our head coach and it filters on down. So we believe in what we’re doing. You have to get the players to a point where there’s a trust-trust. They trust you, we trust them."