49ers preaching decisiveness to running back Trey Sermon

Trey Sermon suffered a broken collarbone on his final college carry.

And Sermon suffered a concussion on his first NFL carry.

So what happens on Friday night, when the San Francisco 49ers running back will likely have his next carry, in the preseason opener against the Packers? There is cautious optimism that his painful, 19-month path will finally give way to production.

That’s what the 49ers, who specialize in finding bonafide running backs in the bargain bin, expected when they traded up 29 spots to draft Sermon in the third round last year. The uncharacteristic move — Sermon is the highest-drafted running back in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s six seasons with the 49ers — strongly suggested Sermon was viewed as a unique talent.

“You see that burst,” general manager John Lynch said on the day Sermon was selected. “You see that ability to stick his foot in the ground, break tackles and hit it in a hurry.”

Lynch was hitting on key qualities that running backs need to thrive in Shanahan’s zone-based running schemes. But the explosion and assertiveness that Sermon flashed at Oklahoma and Ohio State was lacking in his 41-carry rookie season. Last week, Shanahan said Sermon “learned the hard way” that NFL holes “close a lot faster than they do in college.”

“It’s just about hitting it without any hesitation,” Shanahan said.

What happened? Why was Sermon’s trademark decisiveness diminished in the NFL?

Sermon spoke in October about trying to master the timing of the 49ers’ outside-zone attack. He indicated he’d been thinking his way through too many runs, which prevented him from hitting holes aggressively. In addition, it’s worth noting that Sermon’s first regular-season carry ended with a violent collision that would give some backs pause about running violently: Sermon swept left, cut downfield, lowered his head and took a vicious back-to-the-helmet shot that forced him to fumble and left him facedown on the field in Week 2 against the Eagles.

Even before that concussion, however, there was compelling evidence that Sermon hadn’t made a strong impression: The previous week, in the season opener at Detroit, he was a healthy scratch and watched the game in street clothes.

New running backs coach Anthony Lynn, the former Chargers head coach who was an NFL running back, told Sermon he’d have a clean slate entering his second season.

“Well, the first thing I did — because I heard the noise, too — I brought Trey in and just told him, ‘I’m a new coach on staff,'” Lynn said. “’I have no history with you. I don’t care what you did in the past. But I liked your film at Ohio State. I know what you’re capable of. This is what we’re going to do. And this is how we were going to do it.’

“And so far, I like the way he’s responded. He’s not a rookie anymore. He’s been a professional. And I just see it carrying over to the field.”

Sermon, who played between 210 and 215 pounds last season, reported to camp at 220 pounds. He said he changed his offseason routine and spent part of his time working out at two training facilities in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Shanahan said last month that Sermon was as “yoked up as he could be” when he reported for the offseason program.

“I had a plan,” Sermon said. “I knew what I wanted to work on to be better and more prepared… I know for a fact, without a doubt, that I can play at a high level in this league. And I definitely feel like it’s been a big jump for me from year one to year two. Now, I just have to be consistent with it.”

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