49ers Hufanga is ‘everybody’s favorite’; Kittle debut nears; Armstead still out

SANTA CLARA — Safety Talanoa Hufanga’s early-season impact on the 49ers’ defense is obvious.

“He’s probably everybody’s favorite player, just because of the plays he’s making,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said Thursday. “He’s definitely a spark of energy for our entire team, the way he’s played the last two weeks.”

Hufanga’s two-game start to his second season goes beyond his statistics, as impressive as they are: a team-leading 17 tackles (three for loss), three passes defended, one interception.

“He doesn’t hesitate because of his preparation throughout the week. That’s what allows him to light up on game day,” Ryans added. “That’s the culmination of all the prep he’s done in the background when no one’s watching.”

That would be in the film room. He’ll watch with his coaches, he’ll come on off-days to watch more, and, at home, he’s reviewing even more, because, “you can’t get enough of it,” Hufanga said. “You look at the corrections, as well.”

The 48 hours after a game is devoted to dicing up film. Eventually, he moves on to study the next opponent, to get a day ahead of the team’s preparation. First and second downs are scrutinized. Then third down, then red zone, then any tendencies, intricacies and nuggets to help.

Those study habits began in middle school with his father, Tevita. “Mind you, my dad never played football at all, but he was a rugby player, and one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever been around,” Hufanga said. “He really just taught me continuously to be detailed and watch film.”

His dad taught him tackling techniques through his rugby background. Film study took on another dimension once Hufanga got to USC.

“When I got to college, it was very different,” Hufanga recalled. “I didn’t know the playbook. I didn’t know Cover-6, Cover-8, Quarters. When I got there, I had to learn and it was a big step in putting more time in.”

He left USC as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, yet he didn’t get drafted until the No. 180 spot overall, in the 2021 draft’s fifth round.

“I knew I had injuries. I know I don’t run a 4.4 (seconds time in the 40-yard dash); I run 4.6, almost 4.7,” Hufanga said. “But I just go out there and play the game how I think it should be played – that’s fast and efficient.”

His quick thinking keyed the 49ers’ playoff win in Green Bay eight months ago, when he recovered a blocked punt for a tying touchdown.

And now? He is “a guy who plays with his hair on fire,” Ryans added. “He’s everywhere, all over the field, making plays.”

PRACTICE OBSERVATIONS

Tight end George Kittle (groin) participated in his third consecutive practice and looks on track to make his season debut Sunday night, against a franchise he eviscerated for a career-high 210 yards in 2018.

Defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot) missed a second straight practice, after coach Kyle Shanahan intimated Wednesday that Armstead should be alright for Sunday’s game. He’s backed up by Kevin Givens and the versatile Charles Omenihu, while starter Javon Kinlaw and Hassan Ridgeway are also interior linemen.

Colton McKivitz, the 49ers’ No. 3 offensive tackle, was added to the injury report (ankle) and did not practice. Others not practicing: running back Ty Davis-Price (ankle), tight end Tyler Kroft (knee) and offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill (hamstring).

MILESTONE TRACKER

Kicker Robbie Gould needs five points to move up to 12th place among the NFL’s all-time leading scorers. That would vault him past his 49ers predecessor Phil Dawson, who accumulated 1,847 points in a 20-year career that included a 2013-16 tenure with the 49ers.

Gould made 16 consecutive field-goal attempts (playoffs included) before a 20-yard try was blocked and returned for the Seahawks’ only touchdown in last Sunday’s 27-7 win. His 86.5-percent success rate is sixth all-time among NFL kickers.

 

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