The gift of Lloyd

He vaults effortlessly into the sky like a latter-day Lynn Swann, timing his jump in synchronicity with the footballs twirling his way. He twists and adjusts in the air to maneuver his hands perfectly in place to meet passes, then comes down with catches as defenders scramble helplessly around him. Brandon Lloyd is the picture of grace, and he's wowing everybody at 49ers camp as the team's promising new receiving star. But the question remains: Can and will he keep this up once the games begin?

Nobody can know for sure. But so far in 2004, Lloyd has given absolutely no indication to believe otherwise.

Beginning with spring minicamps, Lloyd has asserted himself as the Niners' No. 1 receiver after the offseason departures of 2003 starters Terrell Owens and Tai Streets. Perhaps "assert" is not quite the best way to describe it. "Taken over" is much more like it.

Lloyd has simply come in this year and let his ability do the talking. Nobody can deny that the message is loud and clear.

"I love what I see. We all love what we see," coach Dennis Erickson said.

The Niners loved what they saw last year, too, when Lloyd finally was given a chance to get on the field behind the team's established veteran receivers midway through the season. He ultimately led the team with a 15.1-yard average on his 14 catches, several of which illustrated his big-play, acrobatic ability.

Now, in 49ers training camp, Lloyd puts on a show of those skills practically every practice session.

"In practice, he's got great hands and makes plays and does all those things," Erickson said. "He's done it in the short amount of time that he played last year. He's proven he can do it with a lot of them (the NFL's best receivers)."

With almost four more weeks of training camp remaining, Lloyd doesn't have much to prove to his coaches. But there still is hesitation before they pronounce that the second-year player from Illinois will be one of the NFL's breakout receiving stars this year.

"To me, it's Brandon over a 16-game schedule," Erickson said. "Can he do it over a period of time, or can he do it through a season? It will be interesting to see. He's going to be an outstanding player in this league, regardless."

Lloyd added some solid muscle to his frame during the offseason, but at 6-foot and 192 pounds, his size isn't up to the standard of today's big-and-getting-bigger go-to receivers.

Of course, he makes up for that in other ways.

"He makes plays," quarterback Tim Rattay said. "He has very good body control. So, you can throw him a ball that's behind him, or here, or there. He's able to turn his body mid-stride, which a lot of guys have a hard time doing. He can catch it here or go low. He's already made a lot of great catches (in camp)."

Said Erickson: "He can catch it, he's a good athlete, explosion and all the things that you're looking for. He has it." Then, Erickson was quick to add, "Now, let's just see him do it week in and week out. Which I believe he will, but we really have to see it."

Lloyd can count on repeated opportunities to do it every week once the real competition begins. Erickson and offensive coordinator Ted Tollner are hesitant to say Lloyd can be the team's go-to receiver this year, and there is a pervading philosophy to spread the ball around this season now that egotistical ball hog Owens no longer is part of the offensive plan. But it appears both coaches are eager to see what Lloyd can do at the forefront of San Francisco's receiving progression.

"Brandon Lloyd obviously has made some circus catches out here, so hey, give him the ball," Tollner said. "But," Tollner added cautiously, echoing Erickson's sentiments, "it's got to happen on a regular basis to be a legitimate player at this level. We think it will. But that's something (he's) got to do."

Meanwhile, the Niners just sit back and watch Lloyd get better by the day with breathtaking catches, then dream about what might be once the season begins.

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