Johnson jumps back into action

Eric Johnson experienced a lost 2003 season due to complications with a broken collarbone. So you think this guy is going to let a little thing such as mangled right thumb get in the way of his comeback with the 49ers? Think again. Just two days after he left the field in pain and frustration after dislocating his thumb, Johnson was back at practice Monday afternoon, snagging passes with a soft cast on his hand.

He'll probably have to wear the cast – which is really a compilation of protective padding – for the remainder of training camp after a Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam revealed a torn ligament in the thumb. But the Niners can live with that. They were fearing something possibly worse after the way Johnson's thumb looked after he injured it on a passing play during Saturday's late practice session.

"It wasn't as serious as it could have been," coach Dennis Erickson said. "He'll have to have the padding there to protect his thumb, but he'll play in the preseason and be able to go cast-free before our first (regular-season) game."

Because of his bad luck with injuries – Johnson has missed 20 of San Francisco's last 32 games due to various setbacks – Johnson chucked his helmet to the ground with dismay and aggravation after looking down to see his thumb popped out of place Saturday. But it proved to be a minor hindrance compared to what he encountered when he was hurt last year.

Johnson immediately returned to the fray Monday afternoon without missing a beat, snagging a deep pass over the middle from Tim Rattay during two-minute drills, even though rookie safety Keith Lewis came streaking by in his face as the ball arrived. Two plays later, he grabbed another reception on a sideline route and got out of bounds, indicating the hands are fine even with one of them wearing heavy bandage.

Johnson hardly had as easy a time returning from his last significant injury.

He missed the entire 2003 season after breaking his collarbone in an Aug. 23 exhibition game. The injury wasn't expected to be season-ending, but Johnson experienced complications during his recovery. He eventually had surgery at the end of December to graft bone from his hip into the spot where his collarbone wasn't healing properly.

"Yeah, that's why I didn't have surgery to begin with, because I thought I'd be back for the season and for the playoffs or whatever," Johnson said. "That didn't work out. I wouldn't have been ready even if we had made the playoffs."

Johnson's weight fell below 225 pounds during the offseason, but he said the ordeal is now behind him. A converted wide receiver – the position at which he starred in college at Yale – Johnson reported to camp last week at a robust 252 pounds.

"I feel faster and stronger at this weight," said Johnson, who indicated his blocking technique got a little rusty during the long layoff.

"Now I feel like I have something behind me," he said. "I've got some weight in my legs, so now I just have to get used to it. It's been a year since the last time I was out there blocking. I just have to get my fundamentals back and I'll be ready to go."

The 49ers, however, envision Johnson making his biggest impact as a receiver.

He had 40 receptions as a rookie and 36 in 10 games the next season. Erickson has said several times he plans to put more emphasis on throwing to the tight end this season.

"I hope so," Johnson said. "We've got some new things that we can't really talk about. We'll have a lot of two-tight end stuff and double-threat stuff, and I think we'll be able to really spread the field open. I feel really confident going in."

And a sore thumb – OK, it's a little worse than that – isn't about to dampen his confidence or enthusiasm.


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