The Spencer standard

The smooth, stylish play of Shawntae Spencer has been one of the more striking attractions in 49ers training camp so far, but the rookie cornerback didn't look so appealing Thursday with flags flying around him. That would be flags from the NFL referees who officiated the morning practice and penalized Spencer multiple times for his aggressive play as they enforce the new, stricter 5-yard jam rule. But that doesn't detract from the exciting progress Spencer is making at a position of great need.

Spencer, as coach Dennis Erickson mentioned earlier this week, has "jumped out" during training camp more than any of the team's other nine draft picks. And the second-round selection often has jumped on receivers, displaying his quickness, agility and rapidly-developing coverage skills that the Niners need oh so badly in their secondary behind starting cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph.

Spencer's coverage skills were under the microscope Thursday, and while he often looked good making plays as usual, he also had problems – like many other defensive backs – in adjusting to the stricter enforcement of the five-yard rule that this year will prevent DBs from laying a hand on receivers once they're five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

The four NFL officials in attendance at the Niners' morning session were not kind to Spencer. The rookie, working with San Francisco's first team defense in place of an injured Plummer, was flagged three times in a 10-minute span for illegal contact with receivers.

"They are emphasizing that new rule," Erickson said. "You can't jam a guy and can't hit him past five yards or they are going to call it. It's going to have a major impact on the game because you can't jam guys."

The impact it had on Spencer just made him more determined. He didn't alter his aggressive approach or back down from receivers, traits he has displayed since camp began July 30.

"I don't let the referees dictate to me how I play," a defiant Spencer said. "I'm an aggressive player. You never want a penalty, but at the same time, you want to be aggressive. I don't want to say (the flags were) discouraging. We knew the rule change would be strict. That's the first time we've had the refs out there, the first time we've been subjected to the rules. For the most part, no, I'm not disappointed in how many flags I had – or we had – or nothing like that.

"It's a big advantage for receivers, you know what I mean? But I'm not making excuses or anything like that. It's just going to be a little tough on DBs. So we'll go watch film, see what's acceptable and adjust."

Then Spencer, who has been receiving high praise from teammates and coaches alike this summer, started getting a little tough on himself.

"I don't know what everybody else is watching," he said, shaking his head. "It's funny to me that everyone sees it that way. I wish you could come in and watch the film I'm watching. I'm making mistakes just like all the rookies, if not more. I mean, way too many mistakes. I knew coming in I would take my lumps, but it's just taking me a little longer than I expected to get used to the game. I'm going through growing pains just like everybody else."

They just happen to be a little less obvious to those watching.

Spencer's coverage ability is the reason the 49ers selected him ahead of most projections with the No. 58 overall pick in the draft. He's using those skills to make a strong summer challenge to veteran Jimmy Williams in the battle for San Francisco's third cornerback and nickel back duties.

"He's a great corner," said Rumph, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2002. "Athletically, he's above where I was as a rookie. He's adjusting very well to the defense. As far as I see, he's not going to have any problem adjusting to the NFL."

Said Erickson, "We didn't draft Shawntae Spencer because of the new (five-yard) rule, but he's a good cover guy. He's got great athletic ability. He has great feet, great cover skills, great change of direction, and it has shown out here."

It has shown a lot, and the Niners are expecting those skills will show up often as a significant part in the adjustments they're making this year in the secondary.

The Niners are looking to improve a pass defense that ranked 27th in the NFL last season in preventing opponents from converting on third down. They also lost Jason Webster, their starting right cornerback the past four years who left via free agency. Rumph, the No. 3 cornerback last year, moved into Webster's starting position, leaving a void at No. 3 for which Spencer was brought in to compete.

So far, nobody has been disappointed, even after Thursday's flurry of flags.

Nobody, that is, except maybe Spencer.

"It's a long, tough process to make this jump from college to pro ball," he said. "It's a lot faster tempo and a lot more pressure, but that's why I'm here. I've just got to make adjustments and live up to the standards coach sets for us. I'm still learning, but I'm not concerned about it. All I can do is just play football. I'm a ball player. When my number is called, I just have to go out there and perform."


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