Footwork expert Rischad Whitfield opens up about training 49ers' Deebo Samuel and Jerick McKinnon
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Movement expert Rischad Whitfield, more commonly known as Footwork King, dives into his time with Blitz Football Camp and discusses his experience training 49ers' Richard Sherman, Deebo Samuel, and Jerick McKinnon among others.
Corner Richard Sherman was named as an All-Pro this past season, a journey that required the outspoken Stanford defensive back to climb the proverbial mountaintop for a second time in his career.
The quest to the cornerback Mount Rushmore began in the two Summers ago on a practice field in San Francisco, as noted footwork specialist Rischad Whitfield began to train Richard Sherman.
This is the area that Whitfield specializes in. A former collegiate football player at the University of Houston, Whitfield came to the realization that his football career was in jeopardy due to numerous injuries along the way.
Like every innovator, Whitfield quickly pivoted and focused his career on assisting skill position players with their footwork. Consequently, Whitfield went from personal training to opening up his own facility -- Blitz Football Camp -- in Houston, TX.
Seven years since the inception of Whitfield's camp, it's suddenly turned into the hottest off-season spot for professional and collegiate players, as they leave their home towns and temporarily live in southern Texas to be coached by Whitfield.
He's worked with wideout Odell Beckham Jr., corners Darius Slay, Joe Haden, and Xavier Rhodes at the NFL level, while training guys like receiver CeeDee Lamb and K'Laivon Chaisson at the NCAAF ranks.
As his moniker on all his social platforms would suggest, Whitfield's primary focus is an athlete's footwork, "everything I do involves movement. If you watch the stuff that I do with these players, it's all footwork, mechanics based on the position that they play."
He jokes, "if I knew back in my younger days what I know now, I'd probably be playing -- well I'm 38 years old, so maybe not still, but you get the point."
Given his deep insight with movement, Sherman chose Whitfield as his off-season trainer as he tried to attain the impossible -- return to All-Pro form after a torn Achilles. But as Whitfield would describe it, Sherman's football IQ is so vast, even when his physicality takes a step back, the 49ers' defender can still disrupt offenses with his mind.
"Richard [Sherman] is so smart. It doesn't matter what team they're playing, he knows where the ball's going, just based on the offensive coordinator and quarterback. Mentally, I wish every defensive back that I train can sit and talk to Sherm. The mental part of the game is what these guys got to have and Sherm knows everything from alignment to receiver tendencies and all that stuff makes up for his speed."
While Sherman was ramping back up into football shape, Whitfield was working with another 49ers' corner who was looking to rebound coming into 2019 -- Ahkello Witherspoon.
As part of his cornerback academy, Whitfield worked with some top-flight players, such as Slay and Rhodes, and Witherspoon was a part of the group too. After a rough finish to the 2020 season, Whitfield hopes to train with the former Colorado cornerback later this summer in Los Angeles.
But in order to really improve his game, the footwork expert believes that Witherspoon's problems might be more confidence related, rather than driven by technique or ability.
"Improvement-wise, I don't think it has anything to do with his movement. He just has to make sure he plays the ball, sometimes he's late with his eyes. He's got to play through the ball. He'll be fine this year though, he's just got to keep his confidence up"
One of the games that Whitfield described in detail was the Divisional Round Playoff game vs. Vikings, where Witherspoon had a rough outing against Vikings' Stefon Diggs, giving up a touchdown and then getting benched for backup Emmanuel Moseley.
Whitfield definitely put some perspective on the former third-round pick's performance, adding that he played well in coverage, but Diggs just made the better play. He adds that Witherspoon should be looking for more interceptions next season, given the 49ers' depth at linebacker and their ferocity along the defensive line.
Switching to the offensive side of the ball, Whitfield has spent the better part of the last month closely training second-year wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Jerick McKinnon. The duo have been living and training together in Houston, alongside tackle Trent Williams and Hall-of-Fame bound running back Adrian Peterson.
Whitfield was practically gushing over McKinnon's progress on the field. He describes McKinnon as one of the five-most hardworking players he's ever been around, and that McKinnon sometimes needs to be dragged off the field because he overworks himself.
The two have been working on a variety of footwork drills to assist the 49ers' running back for inside-the-tackle runs. The movement expert described the drills to me as making sure McKinnon keeps his feet moving and sliding and then quickly bursting through the hole when it presents itself.
The two have also been working on McKinnon's hand-eye coordination, with HECOstix. The drill involves a three-headed stick that has three colors and the player's instructed to grab a certain color while the stick's in the air.
The only difference when Whitfield runs this drill -- McKinnon's running a route. As McKinnon's running through cones, Whitfield's tossing him the HECOstix and yelling colors to improve his hand-eye coordination.
On the health front, Whitfield had an update that's sure to get 49ers fans enthusiastic about his return to the field in 2020.
"The knee is 100%...No. 1, Jet [Jerick] is in the best shape of his life. I think he's right around 195 pounds and he's already blazing fast. We're talking about a player that can rev his engine up from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds. The versatility that he's going to bring as a dual-threat running back is huge."
Whitfield also adds that they've been working on quick cuts, lots of change of direction, and the knee has not been bothering the 49ers' running back thus far. He added that McKinnon's impact in the passing attack is what's going to stand out this upcoming season, especially in Kyle Shanahan's offense on third downs.
On the note of Shanahan's passing game, Whitfield adds that wideout Deebo Samuel is in for a huge Year Two, projecting that he should be targeting 1,500 all-purpose yards next season. But before Whitfield went in depth on Samuel's workouts, he described how influential Emmanuel Sanders was on Samuel as a rookie.
"With Emmanuel [Sanders] in the room, everyone will feed off of him. They'll feed off of his energy and his positivity. Emmanuel held Deebo accountable. When it comes to focus and preparation, that's exactly what Emmanuel was very good at for the young guys."
The footwork expert explains that he's been working with Samuel on his cutting, breaks out of routes, and route-running in general. They've been using the HECOstix and Samuel has yet to drop one -- a good sign after Samuel's nine dropped passes this season. The duo has made it a point of emphasis on cleaning up his pass-catching and even catching inaccurate balls.
But the football conditioning doesn't stop with Whitfield, the 49ers' second-year receiver has been going through grueling sessions with Peterson, Williams, and McKinnon that will have him in the best shape of his life.
He adds that Samuel is essentially a receiver in a running back's body and Shanahan's allowed him to make quick, easy catches and then make magic happen afterward.
Specifically, on Samuel's route running, Whitfield adds that there's been significant improvement there this off-season at the Blitz Football Camp. Whitfield has been assisting Samuel with the mental aspect of the game, detailing how corners play certain routes and improving his double-moves routes.
With the abandonment of organized team activities, limited training camp and potentially a reduced preseason, wideout Deebo Samuel and running back Jerick McKinnon might be coming into the year readier than ever thanks to the Footwork King.
Akash Anavarathan covers the 49ers for Fourth and Nine. Follow him at Twitter @akashanav.
Graphic via Dillon Hiser.