Battle's battle

Just when you were about to think Arnaz Battle might become an afterthought with the 49ers this year, he goes out and shows everybody the great things he can do when fully healthy. Battle's all-around display against the Raiders last week was extraordinary, but nobody ever has doubted he had the ability. The battle with Battle has been staying healthy, which prevented him from giving the Niners a vivid display of what he can do with the football in his hands. But he sure is showing them now.

Battle was the star of the team's exhibition opener against Oakland, and his play vaulted him prominently into the picture as both a receiver and kick returner. Battle's weaving, tackle-breaking 61-yard punt return for a touchdown was the play of the game for San Francisco, but the second-year player also looked good returning a kickoff 40 yards, covering kicks (he led San Francisco with two special teams tackles) and turning a short pass into a 16-yard gain.

Battle again will be getting plenty of action Saturday when the Niners continue the preseason against the Bears in Chicago. He'll see action as San Francisco's fourth receiver, and also will split time with Jimmy Williams as the team's front-line returner.

It's no surprise to the Niners that Battle now is emerging after a quiet rookie season.

"He has an innate ability to make plays," coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's very athletic and strong. He's got decent speed and he's a competitor."

Said general manager Terry Donahue: "We've been high on Arnaz since we got him. You know, there was a reason he was a wishbone quarterback at Notre Dame. The guy can do something with the football. He's a strong runner. I was excited (during the Oakland game) for him and excited for us."

So why is Battle just now appearing on the radar of serious significance? As Donahue said, "Unfortunately for him and for us, Arnaz has spent a lot of time in the training room."

Battle's the first to admit injuries have held him back. It has been that way for a good part of the past several seasons, and it was injuries that played a big role in him moving from quarterback in college to the position he now plays with the Niners.

Battle was an All-American quarterback in high school, and he assumed the starting QB role at Notre Dame by the beginning of his junior season. A broken wrist ended that promising adventure after two games. But Battle had 107 yards rushing against Nebraska in the game he was hurt, prompting the Irish to move him to receiver the next year to take better advantage of his athletic ability.

A broken leg hampered his development the next year, but Battle was awarded a redshirt senior season in 2002, when he became Notre Dame's leading receiver. Last year, after the 49ers drafted him in the sixth round, Battle's progress was hampered by a torn ligament in his left big toe. That injury put him on injured reserve in December and eventually required surgery.

"The toe injury was a huge setback," Battle said. "But the doctors did a great job of repairing it, and this year during the offseason I worked hard and I was able to come out and show what I've done this offseason, the dedication that I've put into myself."

Battle finished last season without a reception, and the Niners then went out and drafted college stars Rashaun Woods with their first-round pick and Derrick Hamilton with their third-round pick in April. The next month, they signed veteran Curtis Conway, leaving one to wonder where Battle fit into the plans at receiver.

But with Woods missing most of training camp with hamstring injuries and Hamilton slow to develop, Battle has slid into the fourth receiver role behind Conway and starters Brandon Lloyd and Cedrick Wilson.

"I know I have a way to go to get where I want to be as a receiver," Battle said. "But I'm learning a lot. I had high hopes coming in last year, but I had to stay healthy to continue to learn the position. I have great receivers to learn from and I think I'm making progress now to be where I want to be."

He's also making progress in the kicking game. Battle had a crunching hit that caused a fumble while covering a kickoff last week, and he is making a serious challenge to incumbent Williams for the regular job returning kicks.

Williams led the NFL with a 16.8-yard average returning punts in 2002, but he slipped to a 6.9 average in that role last year. Erickson said Battle and Williams will continue to share the return duties Saturday.

Battle is counting on his versatility to get him on the field as much as possible during the preseason, and is counting on his work their to get him on the field as much as possible once the real games begin in September.

"I have great expectations for this year," he said. "You have to be a guy that's very athletic and can go down on special teams and cover and do a variety of things. I think the coaches have confidence in me that when I'm on the field, I'm going to be in the right position and I'm going to make plays."

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