Spencer or Williams?

Shawntae Spencer or Jimmy Williams? That is one of the hottest questions at 49ers training camp. The smooth rookie and the fourth-year veteran are locked in a tight battle this summer for the third cornerback role, but now we'll see what happens once the games begin. On Thursday, Niners coach Dennis Erickson named Williams the starter at left cornerback for Saturday's exhibition opener against the Raiders, but that doesn't necessarily mean Williams is ahead of Spencer for the No. 3 job.

The team will rest regular left cornerback Ahmed Plummer on Saturday, even though the fifth-year starter has returned to practice after missing a week of drills with groin problems and is "100 percent healthy right now," according to Erickson. "He just started practicing yesterday, so we're not going to play him," the coach added. "We're just going to keep Ahmed out of this game, but he's healthy now."

With that decision, the next decision announced by Erickson ostensibly would indicate who is winning the Spencer-Williams derby.

It appeared that would be Spencer last week, as he stepped in at left cornerback in place of Plummer and performed well during team drills, just as he has looked sharp and stylish with impressive quickness and closing speed during most of training camp.

But Williams has had an excellent week of practice since the team returned to the daily grind after its exhibition practice Saturday at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. He made fine, instinctive plays to intercept two Ken Dorsey passes in a four-play span during red-zone team drills on Wednesday, a performance that may have clinched his starting nod for Saturday.

But don't read too much into who got the start in Plummer's place. Both players will see plenty of action and, coincidentally, Spencer will be starting Saturday in the nickel-back role he actually is auditioning for in the first place.

The two players are so even at this point that Erickson had said Tuesday that Williams was the team's starting nickel back and "probably Spencer and (Mike) Rumph" would start at cornerback with Plummer hurt.

Erickson's cryptic words Saturday when announcing Plummer's replacement made it sound like Williams was starting simply because he holds rank over Spencer with the team and in the system.

"Because he's been here, Jimmy is going to get the start," Erickson said.

But, as Erickson said, "It really doesn't make any difference who starts."

What will make a difference is who performs. Both players have been having solid camps, though Williams - also the top contender to handle punt-return duties - seems to be coming on as of late as the team apparently takes his bid for the No. 3 role more seriously.

"Jimmy's jumped out at me," Erickson said. "He's improved. He's playing better, he understands what is going on and we are putting him in a pretty good position to play the best he can. Plus, his knee is healthier. That makes a heck of a difference, too."

Spencer, who had a quick start in camp, seemed to take a hit to his confidence when NFL officials visited camp last week and flagged him several times for illegal use of hands during team drills. Even though he had been impressive to that point in camp - Erickson even called him the team's top rookie performer so far - Spencer said he was "disappointed" in his performance and also admitted, "I'm very uncomfortable right now."

His progress over the last week has not taken the leap it did during camp's opening week. But it would not be accurate to say he has regressed.

"No, I don't think he's lost his confidence," Erickson said. "You sit down and talk to him about those penalties, it's just how to play with technique. He's played really well technique-wise. I mean, he's got a lot of talent. It's just a matter of him continuing to get better experience-wise with his technique. He changes direction and he is a good cover guy. He'll continue to get better all of the time."

Spencer or Williams? That one still is too close to call. And probably will be for the remainder of this month.

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