SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers and Jim Tomsula kicked off their first training camp together Saturday trying to get their footing in more ways than one.
A slew of new players in prominent roles and the new head coach will spend the next two weeks piecing together ways to win football games before their regular practice schedule ensues. Meanwhile, inside Levi's Stadium, they started that process on some suspect grass.
Yes, the grass inside the team's $1.3 billion venue is grabbing headlines in August again. The portion closest to the west sideline was chewed up before the conclusion of individual drills t the beginning of practice, which was a bad look, because it was the area closest to where fans and media members were watching the evening session.
Receivers and defensive backs cutting on the same areas repeatedly left some large divots. But the middle of the field, between the hash marks, came out looking OK, which is good news. The full-team drills appeared unaffected by the turf.
"We’re not going to come out if it’s not safe," Tomsula said afterwards.
A year after former head coach Jim Harbaugh famously pulled his team from the field inside Levi's Stadium during a practice open to the public, Tomsula did not. But the question was raised if the team would continue to practice there instead of their normal practice facility next door, which has pristine grass. The 49ers' first eight practices of camp are all scheduled to be inside the stadium.
"We will reserve our right to make decisions as we need to. But yeah, I do expect to (practice inside Levi's Stadium Sunday)," Tomsula said, noting the team's grounds crew will bring rollers out and work on the field through the night to ensure it's playable again for Sunday's practice that's scheduled for 4:15 p.m.
Otherwise, Saturday's session provided some early answers to some key questions.
That first group remains unchanged since the offseason program, and is beginning to crystallize as the starting unit for the season opener.
--Colin Kaepernick was erratic in individual passing drills, but performed better in 11-on-11s. The highlight of his night was a deep pass to Torrey Smith down the right sideline past Marcus Cromartie for a 45-yard score. Smith beat Cromartie early in the route and used his speed to help track the ball near the front pylon on the right side of the end zone.
--During the offense-only sessions, the 49ers were working extensively on screen passes, more so than in the drills when the defense was on the field. The focus appears to be the execution of the offensive line, who have to rely on timing and finding their blocking lines to execute the play properly.
--The starting defense remains largely unchanged from the offseason program as well. It went as follows:
Cornerbacks: Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright
Safeties: Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea
Outside linebackers: Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith
Inside linebackers: NaVorro Bowman and Nick Moody
Defensive line: Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Quinton Dial
Most of rookie first-round pick Arik Armstead's work in full-team drills came at the end of practice in the rookie-only session after the veterans had left the field.
In camp, Tomsula has ordered rookies to do roughly 30 minutes of extra work following the conclusion of full-team practices. That allows for some of the draft picks and undrafted free agents to get consistent reps, instead of having to substitute frequently during the regular practice.
--Rookie tight end Blake Bell had a strong day and has good hands.
--Rookie Eli Harold, the outside linebacker, saw work with the second team in Aldon Smith's spot on the weak side of the formation. Harold plays fast, and is showing promising signs.
During an individual pass rushing drill, Harold gave Joe Staley a double move, stepping to the inside, forcing Staley, a Pro-Bowler, to lose his balance. Harold broke back outside to get to the quarterback. It was an impressive sequence for the third-round pick.
--Speaking of outside linebackers, a day after second-year man Aaron Lynch was removed from the NFI list, he did not participate in team drills Saturday. Lynch sustained a hamstring injury that sidelined him for most of the offseason program. The 49ers may want to keep Lynch on the shelf until they are fully confident his hamstring is healed and he can bring his conditioning level back up.
Once Lynch gets back on the field, the 49ers should feel pretty good about their group of outside linebackers considering Harold's work in the early going.
--NaVorro Bowman made his return to the practice field to rave reviews from his head coach.
"Wonderful. Really good. NaVorro’s going," Tomsula said. "You saw him moving around really, really well. And took things longer - in the spring, we weren’t letting him carry anything past 20 yards. Just trying to keep him in that area. You saw him today running down the field. We’re rolling."
It was clear Bowman was still holding himself back and concerned himself more with positioning than moving at full speed. He went without his knee brace during his individual drills, then put the brace on for the full-team session.
The highlight of Bowman's night came when he sacked Kaepernick on blitz with a quick spin move on Martin to the left.
--Darnell Dockett suited up and stretched, but did not participate in Saturday's practice as he continues to recover from his ACL tear sustained last August. Jimmie Ward practiced, but was held out of team drills while he adjusts to a shell on his cleat after suffering a Jones fracture in November.
--Reggie Bush was held out of practice by Tomsula after participating in the team's conditioning test Friday.
"Reggie was good, Reggie wanted to go," Tomsula said. "But we did all the conditioning yesterday, and he was stretching extra. I said, ‘Reggie, what are you doing.’ He said, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ And I said, ‘No, not today.’ I’m not going to wait to see Reggie tired and give him a break. He’s been doing this for a long time. Our goal is to not get Reggie tired. He’s in shape."