McDonald made strides on and off the field

McDonald made strides on and off the field
June 26, 2013, 8:45 am
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Vance McDonald and Eric Reid might be the team's two biggest rookie contributors. (AP)

The most impressive rookie during the 49ers' offseason program also made vast improvements off the field, too.

And we're not even talking about his accepted marriage proposal on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tight end Vance McDonald, a second-round draft pick from Rice, learned a great deal about the 49ers' offense as he worked behind starter Vernon Davis. But he also gained some knowledge behind coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to assign him No. 89.

[REWIND: Rookie TE Vance McDonald adjusts to different language of 49ers offense

Harbaugh made a comparison between McDonald and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who wore No. 89 during his career. Ditka's 12-year NFL career ended in 1972, 18 years before McDonald was born.

Initially, McDonald seemed to believe Ditka played for the 49ers. As a player, Ditka enjoyed his best seasons with the Chicago Bears before finishing his career with the Dallas Cowboys. Ditka later became head coach of the Chicago Bears, and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh played for him.

Now, McDonald has a better understanding of the history.

"My grandma actually mailed me an article about Mike Ditka in the mail," said McDonald, who grew up in Winnie, Texas, a small town 60 miles east of Houston, near the Gulf of Mexico.

[REWIND: 49ers move up to select Rice TE Vance McDonald]

"And she even wrote me a little card and said, 'Read this, so you don't sound like a fool in the media again.'"

Added McDonald, "At first, you know the name, Mike Ditka, you know he was a legendary player and coach, but reading about the relationship with Coach Harbaugh, and then having the jersey number here under Coach Harbaugh, it's just a great feeling to know they have that confidence and belief in me already."

McDonald did plenty during the seven-week rookie program to reinforce that confidence. As time went on, he said he became more comfortable with his responsibilities within the team's offense.

"I have a great guy in front of me, Vernon, who I can watch and pick up small little details that I can apply to my game as well," McDonald said. "It's great the way they have us learning the offense here."

McDonald is expected to replace No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker, who signed with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent. McDonald mostly played slot receiver in college, so blocking his new to him. But at 6 foot 4, 267 pounds, he should be able to quickly adapt when the pads go on during training camp in late-July.

McDonald and Eric Reid might be the team's two biggest rookie contributors. And the two players helped push each other during the offseason.

One of the big storylines of the rookie camp two weeks after the draft was the McDonald matchup against Reid, a first-round draft pick from LSU. McDonald worked out with Reid prior to the draft, but he said he did not even notice Reid was regularly covering on him during those early days. McDonald was too busy concentrating on his own assignments, he said.

[RELATED: 49ers rookies Reid, McDonald go head to head]

"I couldn't have told you who I was matched up against because I was so worried about what I was doing, and the route I was running and the concepts," McDonald said. "It took me about two weeks before I could see, 'OK, this is Eric.' You start picking up on what guys doing. For a while, I was blind to all of that."

McDonald said he was impressed with what he saw from Reid during the course of the offseason program. He said Reid stepped up as a leader of the defense when the rookies had one week together after most of the veterans left town.

Currently, McDonald is taking part in the NFL rookie symposium for the recent draft picks. He was expecting to catch up with fellow ex-Rice tight end and close friend Luke Wilson, a fifth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks.

"I can't call him my enemy, yet," McDonald said. "Everything is so hectic here. And I'm sure it is for him, too. . . . It's a good rivalry and we're so close, too. Same division. It'll be fun. We're so invested into our own organizations that probably won't be something we think about."