Just before the 49ers took to the SAP Performance Facility field, head coach Chip Kelly stressed all players would be given a fresh slate before being analyzed heading into the 2016 season.
Sticking to his word, Kelly favored neither veteran quarterback on Sunday, making sure both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick received a fair split of reps during the team’s first practice of training camp.
In what was Kelly’s first real chance to see Kaepernick and Gabbert stack up against each other in a full practice, the pair of quarterbacks had fairly solid days completing passes to their receivers during the day’s drills.
After losing a ton of weight during his rehab, a resurgent Kaepernick looked healthy and fully recovered from his previous ailments on Sunday.
And while he was still clearly shaking off the rust of having only done light throwing in minicamp — the only interception of the day came on Keith Reaser‘s pick of Kaepernick during 7 on 7’s — Kaepernick said the mental reps he took during the offseason has him caught up to speed on Kelly’s offense:
“It felt great just to be back on the field to start with, and then to get into the offense and really sink my teeth into it and get comfortable with it. I felt good with everything that I was doing. I felt comfortable with the plays and everything. I think a lot of the mental reps I took in the spring really helped me today and helped me during minicamp.”
After working with the 49ers training staff to complete a grueling workout and diet regiment to gain back both his weight and conditioning, Kaepernick said the layoff had no bearing on his ability to compete in Kelly’s uptempo practices:
“Training, that’s my specialty. So, that’s not an issue. That’s not what I worry about. To me, I’m going out there focusing on competing, not worrying about cardio or anything like that.”
Many might be intrigued by the prospect of Kaepernick running Kelly’s offense, but Gabbert looked the most comfortable under center on Sunday, completing slightly more passes in team drills, while making well-placed throws to receivers.
Gabbert’s comfort stems from both his full participation in 49ers offseason programs, as well as a private workout with some members of the San Francisco receiving corps at San Jose State University right before the start of camp.
Along with holding side sessions with his teammates, Gabbert prepared to run Kelly’s offense by adding rigor to his offseason training program in St. Louis, such as running in between throws to condition his body to the fast-paced offense.
But while Gabbert may have a head start on Kaepernick, the sixth-year veteran knows nothing is guaranteed in the race for the starting role:
“There’s always somebody that’s trying to take your job and if you’re not competing with yourself and with the other guys, I would say you’re plateauing and not getting any better. So, every year, you come into camp after summer training, somebody’s there to take your job. That’s just the way this business works and that’s what makes it so fun because it always kind of pushes you to be the best.”
Kelly refused to put a timeline on when he’d like to resolve the competition for the starting role, saying he’d likely be assessing all the way through preseason games if a clear answer doesn’t emerge.