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SANTA CLARA – Tight end Vance McDonald did not have many receptions as a rookie. But he did catch a lot of other stuff that was thrown his way.
“I caught a lot of heat for that last year,” McDonald said of his hands. “I never lost my confidence. I always knew I was capable of catching the football.
“That’s just a little thing I needed to improve on, of course, and change a thing here or there. More or less it comes down to focus. It probably has a lot to do with me just being more confident this year -- just seeing the ball in. It’s a small thing but makes a lot of difference when you do that.”
Few will probably remember because Sunday’s game was merely an exhibition game, but McDonald became the first 49ers player to get into the end zone at Levi’s Stadium. McDonald hauled in a 6-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert late in the first half of the 49ers' 21-7 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
McDonald, a second-round draft pick from Rice, did not get into the end zone in the exhibition season or regular season as a rookie. Despite playing nearly half of the 49ers’ offensive snaps, McDonald caught just eight passes for 119 yards in the regular season.
McDonald seemed to benefit greatly from the absence of Vernon Davis during the offseason program. McDonald got a lot of experience with the 49ers’ first-team offense during that time.
“Everyone has a lot of confidence in Vance,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s a go-to guy.”
In three exhibition games, McDonald ranks second on the 49ers with six receptions for 62 yards. He had an excellent catch of a dart from Colin Kaepernick while falling on his back in last week’s game against the Broncos.
On Sunday, McDonald had great chemistry with Gabbert during the team's first touchdown drive.
“You try to build chemistry with each quarterback,” McDonald said. “Blaine went out today playing really confident, coming off the last two weeks. He was firing the ball and he found me open. Of course, I was happy to see that.”
Said Gabbert, "He’s another guy who goes out there every day with the same mindset, and that’s just to get better. We work on individual routes with those guys because there are so many opportunities for tight ends to be singled up on linebackers and really one-on-one situations.
"So we kind of have to maximize those opportunities when you have a talented athlete on a linebacker.”
McDonald caught a 6-yard pass from Gabbert on a third-and-2 situation. Then, he had a 17-yard reception. His third reception of the drive came when he shook free at the goal line.
“I can’t really even tell you what happened. I was screaming as loud as I could,” McDonald said. “I think I need to write a letter to the camera guy, too, because apparently I hit him with the ball. I’ll get that done. But it was an awesome feeling.”