"It was kind of like being dropped in a big pit last year, a snake pit," McDonald said.
Now entering his sophomore season, McDonald has been temporarily given an even tougher job: replacing holdout Vernon Davis.
McDonald said he expects last year's leader in touchdown receptions (13) to be back at some point during training camp despite his contract impasse with the team. But in the meantime the former second-round pick received the lion's share of reps with the starters during the offseason program as he hopes to improve on his mixed-bag of a rookie campaign.
How did things go in minicamp? Again, a mixed bag. McDonald had a rough first day of the three-day camp, as did the entire offense. But he improved as the week went along. Davis' stark absence loomed over everything considering the regular aerial displays he put on withColin Kaepernick last summer. It was no surprise Davis received 96 targets last year while McDonald got just 19.
But during pad-less minicamp practices, McDonald predictably showed a better grasp of the offense this time around.
"It's all about timing. . .Compared to last year, I would term it smooth. It was just a lot more smooth," said McDonald.
Traditionally the 49ers use two-tight end sets more than any team in the NFL which plays an important part in their running game. And even though they added Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington to the receiving corps this offseason, expect them to remain heavily reliant on its physical running style. McDonald was asked to block on 62 percent of his snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Which is why McDonald is an important player to watch in 2014. His usage (or lack thereof) will be a key indicator of the direction of the offense. That direction will likely be a product of the speed of his development in training camp later this summer.
"He's got a lot of experience under his belt," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "He was very instrumental in our rushing attack last year. (He) didn't have a lot of opportunities in the passing game - that'll probably pick up more. But he wore a lot of different hats last year. He was a little bit of a Swiss Army knife, so he's got a lot of experience to draw on."
McDonald's job last season was largely a thankless one. Glaring drops in the passing game - like the one late in Week 10's loss to the Carolina Panthers - overshadowed a number of key blocks he made on running plays. But the 49ers didn't use a second-round pick on him to be a one-dimensional blocking tight end.
Oddly enough, McDonald was known more for his receiving skills coming out of Rice - where he led the team with 43 catches for 532 yards and five touchdowns his junior season. He made just 9 receptions for 132 yards as a rookie in San Francisco.
"You're expected to know everything the day of and there's so much information because of the new system," said McDonald. "But once you start going, you just get to focus so much more on defensive schemes and just the player across from you - what he's going to do, the technique he's using. There's so much more you can see without having to worry about ‘what's my assignment.'"
If Davis continues to hold out, the focus on McDonald will intensify. After all, Davis is the only tight end in league history with two 13-touchdown seasons. And he accounted for 62 percent of the team's scoring receptions last fall.
But there have been some indications from the offseason program signal a shift in offensive philosophy after the 49ers faced more loaded boxes than any team in football in 2013. In order to balance out the looks they receive from opposing defenses, they're going to have to find ways to spread defenses out with multi-receiver sets.
Until the offense and Kaepernick prove they can work effectively in those sets, McDonald will remain a key component worth watching in training camp - especially if No. 85 remains away from the action.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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