SANTA CLARA (AP) — Months ago in minicamp, Colin Kaepernick expressed the need for him to carry a larger load given the departure of so many stars during the offseason from a defensive unit that has long led the San Francisco 49ers.
With the season opener quickly approaching, there’s clearly a lot riding on Kaepernick’s big right arm, perhaps a new-and-improved arm as he and everybody surrounding the team hope.
Kaepernick begins his third full year as starter after spending much of his offseason in Arizona working alongside Kurt Warner and receiving guidance from other quarterback gurus, and now he will be under the lights for the opener Monday night against Minnesota eager to prove the extra work made a difference and will lead to better production by an offense that struggled in most phases last year.
“I’ve improved personally, I think this team’s improved,” Kaepernick said Thursday. “We’re a lot farther along than where we started. This team has confidence in what we’re doing and our ability to go out and execute.”
So far, such strides have only shown up in practice — those zippy passes with a little more pepper, precision in his delivery and decision-making. San Francisco’s offense failed to score a touchdown on eight preseason possessions.
“Colin just needs to be Colin,” coach Jim Tomsula said. “I don’t know if you can meet a more driven person. I don’t know if you’ll ever meet a more driven person than Colin Kaepernick.”
Kaepernick has been impressive in prime time, going 4-0 playing on Monday night with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Not that he’s keeping track.
“I love playing under the lights, since high school. It just kind of takes you back to the old days of being under the lights,” he said. “It’s a different vibe than when you’re playing a day game. Everyone likes that feeling.”
Kaepernick completed 289 of 478 passes for a career-best 3,369 yards and 19 touchdowns last season while throwing 10 interceptions and taking a career-high 52 sacks — second most in the NFL behind the 55 on Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles.
Now, he’s playing behind a largely new offensive line already facing its share of scrutiny after the Niners had repeated clock problems last season. He has a fresh target in Torrey Smith, though they only connected on one 5-yard completion during the exhibition schedule.
“We’ve hit on a lot more as of late in practice,” Smith said. “I’ve been catching them for years, he’s been throwing them for years. We’ve just got to make it happen at the right time, during the game.”
In Arizona with Warner, Kaepernick spent one day a week in a classroom setting, and applied those concepts from chalkboard study on the field as he worked on his mental approach.
Kaepernick has regularly been a dual threat with his strong arm and speedy legs, allowing him to break long gains in the open field. He’d like to be that guy again.
“I’m really not worried about what people say about me as a quarterback,” he said. “I’m worried about what my teammates think and what my coaches think about me as a quarterback. That’s ultimately who I give that ability to judge to.”
Warner said he worked with Kaepernick on becoming more comfortable in the pocket so he sticks with his progressions to complete more short passes.
“You’ve got to be able to make the layups, we say, the ones that you have to be able to read it, and the easy throws,” Warner said. “You just can’t live in that outside-the-box type world where you’re always trying to create, because these guys are just too good.”
Second-year Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater also leaned on Warner for advice after he finished his college career at Louisville.
“Be yourself,” Bridgewater said. “His words meant a lot to me at that time.”
Former 49ers coach and NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci has seen enough of Kaepernick to make comparisons with some 49ers greats: Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young.
“Colin Kaepernick’s arm is the strongest arm the 49er quarterbacks have ever had,” Mariucci said. “Stronger than Joe’s and Steve’s and Jeff Garcia’s. ... But I saw a better presence in the pocket. I saw a better touch on some short passes, short, intermediate passes that required him taking some velocity off. I saw a little bit of confidence. Now it’s only one practice in training camp, but I think adding a Torrey Smith and with the new play callers, I think he’s going to have a heck of a year. I really do.”