San Francisco Chronicle
Grades: Is that a whiff of 2020 in the air?
DETROIT — One of the big pieces that went missing for the 49ers’ offense last season was Raheem Mostert, the running back who followed up his breakout 2019 season with an injury-plagued 2020.
So it was disheartening in the first half when the report came that Mostert — who ripped off runs of 11 and 9 yards on the 49ers’ first drive — was sidelined with a knee injury. The running game is so critical to making Kyle Shanahan’s offense work, it seemed like a big blow.
But it also seems that every running back inserted into Shanahan’s offense ends up being productive. And that old “next man up” trope in sports means that there was suddenly a big opportunity for another player.
It wasn’t the one you might have predicted.
Rookie Elijah Mitchell, a sixth-round draft pick out of Louisiana, got the nod as the backup. Trey Sermon, a thirdround pick out of Ohio State, was inactive. Shanahan said that the decision to go with Mitchell was made in training camp. Mitchell said he learned he would be the backup a few days before the game.
“I thought he did a real good job,” Shanahan said. “It’s what we expected him to do, but it’s always tough in your first game. He went in there and didn’t hesitate.”
Mitchell ended up carrying 19 times for 104 yards, becoming the first rookie in franchise history to rush for 100 yards in his NFL debut.
“You could tell it was going to be a big day for the backs,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.
In the second quarter, Mitchell took off for a 38-yard touchdown.
“I saw the hole so I just had to hit it,” Mitchell said. “I got to give it up to the guys blocking in front of me.
“In this offense, you’ve just got to put your foot in the ground and get vertical.”
But hitting the hole isn’t all a running back has to do. Garoppolo was asked about the rookie’s pass-blocking skills.
“Up and down, I guess you could say,” Garoppolo said. “There was some good and some bad. But, overall, I thought he came in with the right mentality.”
Mitchell, who played four years at Louisiana and rushed for 3,267 yards, said, “I still got a lot to learn in pass blocking.” He said that Mostert helped mentor him on the sideline.
Mitchell didn’t get a chance to catch a pass, but he thinks that’s a skill that will also help him with the 49ers.
The 49ers’ rookie class is already making some noise.
“Elijah was super explosive,” rookie backup QB Trey Lance said. “He was a ton of fun to watch today.”
The 49ers expect to learn more about Mostert’s injury Monday.