Cole Hikutini has taken a roundabout route to the 49ers.
Out of high school in Sacramento, Hikutini went to Sacramento State after receiving no offers from big schools. Then he transferred to San Francisco City College, where he became a junior college All-America tight end, finally catching the attention of major programs.
Once he transferred to Lousiville as a junior, he found his fit.
During his first season, he caught just 19 passes over 10 games for 348 yards and three touchdowns. Then as a senior this past season, he caught 50 balls for 668 yards and eight TDs. He left Louisville having caught at least one pass in 23 straight games.
At Louisville, Hikutini – at 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds – became a favorite target of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson. He wasn’t considered an outstanding blocker, but as a “move” tight end, NFL scouts saw a player with good acceleration who battled for balls against defenders and had a knack for finding open spaces in the defense.
During the recent NFL draft, he went unselected, but then signed with the 49ers as a free agent after weighing offers from several teams.
Now he’ll try to win a job against heavy competition from Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, Blake Bell and fifth-round pick George Kittle of Iowa. The road to a roster spot could be tough.
But many believe Hikutini was worthy of being a draft pick and is undervalued. Hikutini and Saint Francis defensive back Lorenzo Jerome, who also signed with the 49ers, were on the list of the top 25 undrafted free agents compiled by longtime NFL analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
“A knee injury kept him from drills at the combine,” wrote Kiper. “He ran the 40 around 4.80 at his pro day, but I thought his tape showed a Day 2 pick (in the draft), and he was my sixth-ranked tight end. Hikutini could be a steal.”
Eric Gamboa of the FanSided website also noted that Hikutini was projected as a pick somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds.
“Hikutini often presented problems for opposing defenses using deceptive speed to gain separation,” wrote Gamboa. “Hikutini always found ways to get open in zone coverage.”
That echoed the thoughts of the analytic website Pro Football Focus. But PFF believes Hikutini will have to make his mark on special teams and improve his blocking to stick on the roster in 2017. If he can do that, he may be able to develop and contribute in the passing game.
“If he can make strides as a run blocker, he could be a decent move tight end down the road,” wrote PFF.