Spencer checking out at corner

Shawntae Spencer used to check out Larry Fitzgerald's receiving act quite often when they were lined up against each other as University of Pittsburgh teammates. Now Spencer is checking out Fitzgerald's big paychecks, and he'll be checking his former college buddy off the line of scrimmage in a key matchup during Sunday's game between the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals.

Fitzgerald and Spencer used to have some righteous practice battles during their college days the past two seasons, and it was something that obviously made both players better. Particularly Spencer, who was a surprise second-round selection in the April draft and now is the Niners' regular starting right cornerback after Mike Rumph suffered what likely is a season-ending broken arm last week.

"I can tell you, he made me a lot better," Spencer said. "He helped me out a lot with a lot of things in my game. He showed me things that I should try to change up. Things in college, you can't bring it on this level. You have to adjust. Pretty much, I scrapped my whole college game. I'm letting these coaches here critique me into a pro corner."

Spencer has climbed past veteran Jimmy Williams to become the No. 2 cornerback on San Francisco's roster at this point. As such, he will be matched up often Sunday against Fitzgerald, who was the No. 3 overall selection in the draft this year and currently leads the Cardinals with 17 receptions for 204 yards.

And that will require checking the big and agile Fitzgerald off the line as the Niners attempt to get more production out of a secondary that has had its problems so far.

It's nothing Spencer hasn't done before, though he is learning that he has to use a more physical technique more often than he did in college to survive as he learns the game at the pro level.

"In college, I didn't press a lot," Spencer said. "At this level, I press a ton. Every chance I get, I try to. I'm pretty sure that's something different. We played together in practice a lot. He knows me, I know him. I'm pretty sure he adjusted his game, just like I adjusted mine. It's something I'm going to try to go out there and get a feel for the first couple of plays and go from there."

Spencer says he talks with Fitzgerald once a week, and there were some adjustments to make when he heard about the disparity in the weekly paychecks between the two players.

Spencer certainly isn't doing poorly for himself after signing a four-year, $2.5 million contract that included a $1.14 million signing bonus after the Niners made him the No. 58 overall selection in the draft. But it couldn't compare with the stratospheric money Fitzgerald is earning as one of the top picks in the draft. Fitzgerald, second in Heisman Trophy balloting last year, received a whopping six-year, $60.4 million contract that includes $15.2 million in guaranteed money. "He told me about his checks, that's about it," Spencer said of a recent conversation. "Other than that, he's going through the same growing pains as me."

Spencer has been making significant progress during his growing pains. He has 13 tackles and is second on the team with three passes defensed after four games. His fine progress has at least somewhat softened the blow of losing Rumph, whom the Niners were counting on to be a key cog in their defense this season.

"Shawntae is getting better all the time," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "I thought he came in and did a very good job when (Rumph) got hurt. He made some plays and did some awfully good things. Again, he's learning all the time."

Spencer already has had plenty of study time for this week's lesson.

"(Fitzgerald)'s a competitor," Spencer said. "Everybody knows that, especially me. I played with the guy for two years. I know every play he's going to come out and go hard. He knows it's the same with me. So it should be fun. It's not a tough situation. He has a job to do, I have a job to do. When they start the game, we're going to go at each other."

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