In February, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus announced the hiring of Richard Hightower as the team’s new special teams coordinator.
Hightower returns to Chicago after previously serving as assistant special teams coach for the Bears in 2016.
The Bears franchise notes Hightower arrives with 15 years of NFL coaching experience, including the last five as special teams coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers. He returned to San Francisco in 2017 after previously serving as assistant special teams coach with the team in 2015.
Last season the 49ers’ special teams played a big role in the team’s postseason run to the NFC Championship game.
In the divisional round win at the Packers, Hightower’s unit blocked a punt for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and also converted on the game-winning field goal as time expired. They also blocked a field goal as time expired, going into halftime to keep it a one-possession game. Then to open the second half, Deebo Samuel set the 49ers up with great field position with a 45-yard kickoff return.
Punter Mitch Wishnowsky had an outstanding year in 2021. He earned his second-career NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honor after Week 2 after his outing against the Eagles where he recorded two punts that pinned Philadelphia inside their own 10-yard line, neither resulting in points, and finished the day with five punts for 226 yards (45.2 average) with three landing inside the 20.
He also earned NFC Player of the Month honors for September. That month, Wishnowsky registered 11 punts for 515 yards (46.8 average), including a long of 59. Those 11 punts were returned for a total of only 19 yards and of his 11 punts, six landed inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. Wishnowsky and special teamer Trenton Cannon also were named Pro Bowl alternates following the 2021 season.
From 2017-20, the 49ers kicking unit tied for second in the NFL in made field goals (124) and fifth in field goal percentage (88.6). In addition, San Francisco’s punt coverage ranked second over that time span, holding opponent punt returns to an average of 6.2 yards per return.
In 2020, Hightower helped Wishnowsky record the ninth-most punts inside the 20-yard line (25) in the NFL while finishing in the top-12 in both net (41.6, 12th) and gross (46.9, 11th) average. Kicker Robbie Gould converted 19 of 23 field goals (82.6 percent) and earned NFL Special Teams Player of the Week honors in Week 12.
In 2019, Hightower led the 49ers special teams unit that had an average starting field position of the 32.1-yard line, ranking second in the NFL.
San Francisco also held opponents to an average starting field position of the 24.7-yard line, which ranked seventh. Kicker Robbie Gould connected on 23 of 31 field goal attempts and finished the season with 110 points, marking his third-consecutive 100-or-more point season with the 49ers. He was also named Special Teams Player of the Month for December for the third-consecutive season since joining the 49ers in 2017.
Wishnowsky registered a 44.9 punt average which ranked second among all rookies in franchise history (min. 20 punts) and wide receiver Richie James Jr. ranked seventh in the NFL in punt return average (8.0) and 10th in kickoff return average (21.4).
Under Hightower’s tutelage in 2018, San Francisco’s special teams units flourished.
Gould set the 49ers single-season franchise record for field goal percentage (97.1), as he connected on 33 of 34 field goal attempts and finished the season with 126 points. He also set the franchise record for most consecutive field goals made (33) and finished the season connecting on each of his final 23 attempts.
Gould was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for December and was a two-time recipient of the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week Award (Week 2 & 15). Rookie WR Richie James Jr. was named All-NFC kick returner by the PFWA as he averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return, which ranked seventh in the NFL. James Jr. also registered the team’s first kickoff return for a touchdown (97 yards) since 2011.
In 2017, the 49ers special teams units excelled under Hightower’s guidance.
In his first season with the 49ers, Gould had a career year, leading the NFL with a career-high 39 made field goals and finishing third in the NFL with a career-high 145 points. Gould’s 39 made field goals were the second-most in a single-season in franchise history (K David Akers – 44 made field goals in 2011) and tied for the third-most in a single-season in NFL history.
P Bradley Pinion set a career high with a 41.3 net punting average and the punt coverage unit ranked second in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per return. The 4.2 opponent punt return average was the eighth-best in the NFL since 2001.
As an assistant special teams coach with Chicago in 2016, the Bears kickoff coverage team finished seventh in the NFL in opponent drive start average. Deonte Thompson led the NFL in kickoff returns with 35 and ranked second with 810 yards.
Punt returner Eddie Royal scored on a 65-yard touchdown on Monday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles, while Sherrick McManis led the Bears in special teams tackles and finished top 10 in the NFL, recording 13 stops.
Hightower is a native of Houston, Texas. He earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Texas where he was a three-year letterman and special teams standout for the Longhorns. He went to Austin as an academic scholar and later earned an athletic scholarship after walking on. Following his senior season, then-head coach Mack Brown and his staff voted Hightower the D. Harold Byrd Leadership Award winner.
Hightower and his wife, Lanet, have two sons Jaxson and Kaden and a daughter, Reagan.
Joseph Phillips is the Sports Editor for the Chicago Crusader Newspaper. He is a Chicago native, who has been a sports writer for over 17 years. He also hosts the SC Media News and Sports Network Q&A radio show on WHPK 88.5 FM Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected].
Joseph Phillips is the Sports Editor for the Chicago Crusader Newspaper. He is a Chicago native, who has been a sports writer for over 17 years. He also hosts the SC Media News and Sports Network Q&A radio show on WHPK 88.5 FM Chicago.