First-day first looks
Larry Grant makes big play with pick in afternoon
Larry Grant makes big play with pick in afternoon
SFI editor in chief
Posted Jul 25, 2008

First looks can be deceiving, but they also can tell plenty about what’s to come. We got a glimpse of the 2008 49ers in training camp mode for the first time during Friday’s opening practice sessions, and here’s some first-day news, views, observations and impressions as we cover the spectrum from the beginning of the long summer grind to come.

--- Scratch that promise of a three-way open competition for the starting quarterback position. In an abrupt departure from the company line the 49ers were holding to steadfastly just a month ago, it’s now a friendly two-man battle for the job between chums Alex Smith and Shaun Hill with J.T. O’Sullivan being relegated to No. 3 status in no uncertain terms. O’Sullivan mostly watched from the sideline with his helmet off during San Francisco’s first two training camp practices Friday morning and afternoon, and coach Mike Nolan confirmed O’Sullivan no longer is in the mix for the starting position, which makes inquiring minds wonder if he ever really was.

--- “I think it’s fair to say that,” Nolan replied when SFI asked if it’s now a two-man race at quarterback. “J.T. O’Sullivan has to stay ready. I want him to get enough work that he can stay in tune with his skills and compete if he has to. But right now, from a repetition standpoint, there’s no way of getting around that two guys are going to take more of the reps. And it’s probably going to stay that way for a while.”

--- Smith, who never really gets too deep when offering perspective, certainly seems to realize the magnitude of what this year will mean to his career, at least as far as his future with the 49ers is concerned. “This is year No. 4 for me,” he said. “There is enough talk about potential and capabilities. It is about coming out here now and consistently playing well. It is definitely high stakes. Every single day is going to count. Every single day is going to be evaluated. There are only two weeks before our first (preseason) game. You have to come out here to play. You can’t have an off day, or lack of focus, or anything like that.”

--- It never would be totally accurate to label any opening session of training camp as an off day, but neither Hill nor Smith looked particularly sharp during Friday’s two non-padded practices, sending several wobbly throws and misguided aerials in the directions of their receivers. And it occasionally looked like duck season when the San Francisco quarterbacks attempted to go long.

--- Airing it out is not something Hill does particularly well, but that never seemed to be a problem during his auspicious three-game stint last year, which has put him in the position he stands today.

--- The Mike Martz offense is predicated on timing and precision, but despite finishing with decent completion numbers during team drills, both San Francisco quarterbacks were off the mark in that regard to open camp.

--- On one play during the morning session that illustrated why timing and precision are so vital in Martz’s attack, Hill unloaded a quick pass over the right middle on a hot read intended for rookie tight end J.J. Finley, a rather imposing target at 6-foot-6, which makes him as tall as any player on the team’s summer roster. It would have been a sweet pass by Hill, lofted nicely over a defender’s back, but Finley was late turning to look back for the rapid release and it hit him flush in the helmet, doinking off the top of his dome and falling into the hands of ballhawk Dashon Goldson.

--- That was part of an auspicious opening day for Goldson, the second-year player who has a nose for the football seemingly like no other player in San Francisco’s deep defensive middle. Goldson roams the field instinctively and has the look of a playmaker, an impression he also started to give during his limited playing time as a rookie. Goldson had another interception in the afternoon practice and, while Mark Roman isn’t necessarily doing anything to lose his job as the starting free safety, Goldson is necessarily doing something to take it.

--- To be sure, there will be receivers running open all the time in the Martz offense. There are simply too many guys finding holes in the defense to cover.

--- Now, getting the ball near enough to them so that they can catch it might be an issue.

--- Jeb Terry is challenging for one of the team’s backup roles at offensive tackle. He looked good in pass block drills, manhandling several defenders, one time burying defensive lineman Walter Curry into the ground.

--- Undrafted rookie Louis Holmes has some real burst off the edge and is a kid to keep an eye on once the pads are mounted Monday morning. The 49ers will continue to practice in shorts, shells and helmets both Saturday and Sunday, a development that was practically greeted with applause in the San Francisco locker room.

--- Donald Strickland showed why he sticks around as a contributing member of the secondary when he stuck like glue to newcomer receiver Bryant Johnson on a stop-and-go route down the right sideline. Smith put the ball on Johnson’s hands, but Strickland was there to knock it away as it arrived with outstanding coverage.

--- As hard and as many times as he pushed, Ray McDonald couldn’t get past Jonas Jennings during one-on-one edge line drills, but he did get a pat on the rear from Jennings a few times for trying.

--- McDonald got some real time with the first unit Friday, but the 49ers need and expect the 2007 third-rounder to bring more heat than he generally has displayed so far.

--- Isaac Sopoaga is pure muscle and force when he’s let loose to push up the middle on a pass rush. He methodically drove guard Tony Wragge eight yards into the backfield during 1-on-1 drills.

--- When a bug bite brings down a big, bad lineman like Joe Staley, you know it must be pretty bad. The team’s young stud at left tackle did not practice due to an infection in his foot that resulted from a bug bite and his return to action is uncertain.

--- With Staley out, Damane Duckett moved in and took first-team snaps at left tackle during team drills. The other temporary fill-in with the first team on a reconfigured line is Wragge at right guard in place of injured David Baas, who continues to recover from April surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. Baas was placed on the physically unable to perform/active list Friday, but he still is on course to return to action by the season opener Sept. 7 against Arizona.

--- Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin also was played on the PUP/active list after being held out of practice with an Achilles injury. Franklin is expected back on the field in the next few days. Ronnie Fields looked solid on the nose in Franklin’s place with the first unit.

--- A little misdirection pass to Vernon Davis in the flat when he’s isolated 1-on-1 with a safety or linebacker: Now, that’s a play the 49ers should run a lot more often this year than they have in the past.

--- Breakout candidate: When the 49ers attempt to stretch the field at tight end with Davis and get the ball down the turf to their talented physical specimen, there will be a lot of opportunities for the unheralded Delanie Walker to do some real damage underneath coverage. These guys could drive opposing coverage packages crazy in two-tight end formations.

--- Frank Gore flashing out of the backfield for swing passes is going to be a heavy load for opponents to handle this season.

--- But trying to stop him on the ground will pose an even bigger challenge. Refreshed by his new role(s) in the Martz offense, Gore looks streamlined and more determined to break out like he did during his sophomore season of 2006.

--- Case in point: During the afternoon practice, Gore squeezed through the line, burst into the secondary, then left defenders flat-footed with several agile cuts in the clear. As a clamor rose from the crowd on hand of about 3,000, secondary coach Johnny Lynn looked back at the bleachers and cried out, “I like that myself!” What was not to like?

--- Great grab: Jason Hill, in heavy traffic, came back to the passer to make a leaping, two-handed grab amid a tangle of three defenders while practically stretched horizontally along the ground.

--- But there’s going to be some real competition for that No. 5 slot at wide receiver that Hill seems to be holding onto at the moment. Impressive rookie Josh Morgan is for real and looks capable of putting up a legitimate battle for a roster berth and, maybe, even a selective role in the receiver rotation.

--- And then there’s lanky Dominique Zeigler, who appears to have added some thickness to his frame, particularly from the waist down. Zeigler, an undrafted rookie last year who made a nice impression while spending the season on San Francisco’s practice squad, made a fine leaping catch while tiptoeing the sideline to end the morning session, then got open and snagged everything that came his way during the course of the afternoon, including a couple of passes deep down the field. If he keeps doing those kind of things, he’s a youngster that has to be considered.

--- When you realize that Ashlie Lelie is likely to be San Francisco’s fourth receiver this year, that says something about what the team has done to upgrade at the position.

--- One receiver who didn’t give or get many looks Friday was Isaac Bruce, who is expected to be San Francisco’s No. 1 target on the edge in his 15th NFL season. That will be a common sight – or non-sight – during the early stages of camp. “This is his 15th year and what we’re trying to do is get him enough work in the early part of practice where the quarterbacks can read his body language, and he can get work to make his body feel right,” Nolan said. “But once we get through and get into the group and team drills, for right now we’re going to limit him to the point of probably no reps. I want to respect the fact that I know he knows what he’s doing. I know he’s an outstanding player. I want to get ready for the season, not preseason games. So, right now, we’re feeling it out.”

--- Third-round draft pick Reggie Smith definitely is being groomed for an early rise to prominence on the edge in the secondary. This kid is a superb talent. Smith got in on a late-afternoon pick parade that also saw Shawntae Spencer and rookie linebacker Larry Grant making snags, then showed off his speed and athleticism by turning on the afterburners as he crossed the field and turned the corner on his return. Smith has the look of a contributor by the end of the season at a position where it takes time to learn at the NFL level.

--- If Tully Banta-Cain doesn’t bring the heat any better than he did last season, when he was slowed by injuries, we could be seeing more of Rod Green on passing downs this season at right-outside linebacker.

--- Remember Jay Moore? Now that the 2007 fourth-rounder has had his redshirt season, he’s going to get an opportunity to show what he can do on the front-line edge of the team’s 3-4 defensive scheme. It’s sort of the same situation for 2007 fifth-rounder Tarell Brown, who was making an impression at cornerback as a rookie before injuries dragged him down. Now he has another talent such as Smith to contend with at what has become one of the team’s deeper positions.

--- How many times did the 49ers’ anemic offensive plan call for a screen pass last season to slow down opposing pass rushers? You’ll be seeing it much more often this year in the Martz offense.

--- The brewing Barry Sims/Jonas Jennings showdown at offensive right tackle could develop into one of the best positional battles in camp and promises to bring out the best in both established veterans, particularly the enigmatic Jennings.

--- We’ll say it right now: Brandon Moore just has to get a legitimate shot at the starting inside linebacker position next to phenom defensive centerpiece Patrick Willis. Moore shared some time with Jeff Ulbrich with the first team at the “Ted” position Friday, which is an excellent sign he’s back where he belongs.

--- And that’s a fact, and a training camp first-day wrap.

Related Stories
Camp Q&A: Alex Smith
 -by  Jul 25, 2008
SFI's guide to 49ers summer training camp
 -by  Jul 24, 2008
Who's at QB? Let the camp competition begin
 -by  Jul 24, 2008

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