On the Field
After their day off Saturday, the 49ers returned to the practice field Sunday with a number of key player coming off the shelf after missing time last week. The team is gearing up for its preseason debut against the Denver Broncos Thursday night at Candlestick Park.
NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Kassim Osgood and Ricardo Lockette all returned. Center Jonathan Goodwin was out again while Joe Staley appeared to have the day off.
Bowman, dealing with a groin issue, was back at the team’s ‘mike’ linebacker position alongside Michael Wilhoite with the first team defense. Bowman has been in and out of practice all last week, missing practice Tuesday, returning Wednesday, then sitting Thursday and Friday.
Smith was back working with the outside linebackers and recorded a sack in 11-on-11 drills. Smith had missed three-straight practices last week for undisclosed reasons, although it’s likely it was just time off. He spent the offseason recovering from surgery to repair his torn labrum following the Super Bowl.
But the story of camp early on had been the status of the receiving corps that saw an influx of four players back on the field Sunday. Williams (hamstring), Jenkins (ditto), Osgood (unknown) and Lockette (hip) all returned, joining the newly-acquired Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins.
After having five wideouts available in Thursday’s practice, the team had 11 on Sunday. The highlight from the group came from free-agent signee Charly Martin, who ripped a catch away from Carlos Rogers after Rogers had position up against the sideline.
Collie and Hawkins rotated mostly with reserve units as they ease their way into the offense.
The long play of the day came late when A.J. Jenkins caught what would have been a 70-yard touchdown pass from Colt McCoy with Lowell Rose in coverage. Collie also had a long reception from Scott Tolzein with Rose in coverage.
The 49ers worked on end-of-game situations during a good portion of full-team drills with an emphasis on the red zone. Vernon Davis got banged up and missed some of the session (his injury doesn’t appear serious) and the team struggled in his stead. Colin Kaepernick had trouble connecting with Gerrett Celek and Vance McDonald in Davis’ stead.
Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox had solid days in the secondary as the two battle for snaps after Chris Culliver went down with a potentially season-ending ACL tear. Brock jumped a route early in the team session and had an interception against McCoy that would have gone the distance. It was his second interception of McCoy in as many practices.
Much of the discussion regarding finding a replacement for Culliver has revolved around Brock, who is one of the longest-tenured corners on the team vying a role. More on that below.
First round pick Eric Reid received reps with the first-team as the team continues to rotate players in the free safety spot. Jim Harbaugh said he thought Reid played well and will continue to get reps. C.J. Spillman is listed as the started free safety on the team’s unofficial depth chart, but it’s likely Reid gets the most snaps of anyone in Thursday’s game against Denver.
In the Press Tent
Jim Harbaugh was asked about his new group of receivers and the splitting of reps, specifically Jenkins and where he currently stands within the suddenly-crowded group.
“Well he was slowed by not practicing and he needs reps. We’re looking forward to him getting those this week and in the ballgame as well. He needs time, he needs playing time,” Harbaugh said.
LaMichael James also spoke to the media Sunday, as his session was themed by the steps he’s taken as a complete back and punt returner since his rookie year. James added weight in the offseason to help become a stronger, more durable runner and to help with his pass protection.
“Vast improvement from one year to the next,” Harbaugh said of James. “You talk about it and say that usually players from the end of their first year to the start of their second year have the chance to make the greatest amount of gains in their career. Just like college players that are freshmen that go to their sophomore year. LaMichael is a real, living example of that. It’s noticeable in all areas.”
James said he spent time every day last year and during the offseason program working with special teams coach Brad Seely and assistant Tracy Smith on catching punts. James struggled in the return game during in the preseason a year ago that factored into the decision to make him inactive on game days until Week 13, following Kendall Hunter’s Achilles injury.
“(Seely) stayed patient with me. Sometimes it be hard like ‘I don’t want to do this. It’s killing me.’ But he really did stay patient with me and helped me out every day and I feel like I got better,” James said.
“(James’) returning, the way he catches punts and kickoffs now, we look at him as a trusted agent back there to field punts and kickoffs,” Harbaugh said.
The 49ers went the majority of 2012 without James in the fold and should feature an even more diverse running scheme than before when Frank Gore, Hunter and James are all suited up on game days. All three have very different and distinct running styles, which will be tough on opposing defenses to game plan for.
Carlos Rogers talked about how the team is preparing to replace Culliver and what Tramaine Brock brings to the back end of a defense that needs to improve on the way it played late in the season.
“You never know when injuries are going to come up,” Rogers said.” The next guy has to step up, as a team. Especially in the secondary, especially someone that was starting nickel to the third corner coming off the bench play a big role on this team.”
Brock has had a good training camp to this point and has the chance to become the team’s No. 3 corner replacing Culliver. He’s competing against Nnamdi Asomugha and Perrish Cox, although free agent Eric Wright remains a possibility after a failed physical nixed the trade in mid-July.
Although Asomugha has shown flashes in camp, Vic Fangio seems unsure about his ability to contribute in the long run.