The minicamp wrap

The 49ers completed the first full-squad minicamp of the Mike Nolan era in a heavy downpour Sunday, slogging through the end of their final practice session as ominous clouds spilled from above. That almost seemed appropriate, because there's sure to be some dark and rainy weather ahead for this young, rebuilding team. But this three-day event clearly was a positive start on the way to somewhere, and here are our observations, impressions and speculations after the Niners took that first step.

--- The hot new kid in town, Alex Smith, rolled into 49ers headquarters Friday still not quite of age, but after celebrating his 21st birthday Saturday, Smith had made the figurative and legal leap from minor to man by the time minicamp concluded. In a football sense, we think we saw a similar kind of progress on the field.

--- The three-day session ended with Smith improvising in the open field, fighting the conditions, searching through the suddenly torrential raindrops for a receiver with the clock winding down at the end of a two-minute drill. Under pressure, scrambling, with nothing open in front of him, the rookie found Derrick Hamilton in the corner of the end zone, squeezing the ball into the receiver's chest as diving defenders converged.

--- That was a pretty hopeful image with which to send everybody off into the remainder of May.

--- The thing we like most about Smith so far? He's a natural. The game simply comes to him. It's not something you always see with athletes, even at this level. You see Smith doing something for the first time, and he doesn't fight it. The next time around, he's that much better for the experience. It's going to be interesting to see where this guy is in his progress in a couple of months.

--- That said, if there was a game today, Smith is this team's third-string quarterback, and maybe the fourth-stringer.

--- As was related in this space Saturday, Ken Dorsey has rejuvenated his chances with this team the past three days, giving glimpses of the upside that many observers weren't quite sure existed any more.

--- We'd like to be seeing more of that from Rashaun Woods. So would the 49ers.

--- We keep hearing from readers and other observers about Woods' potential and how great he was in college. But here's where he stands today: Maybe as the team's No. 4 receiver and falling, or more likely, as the team's No. 5 receiver now working to hold off the two draft picks added to the mix at the position.

--- Yes, that's to infer Woods did not have an impressive minicamp. This is the way coach Mike Nolan put it: "He's a second-year guy that's sort of in that rookie status in my mind."

--- Nolan did not exactly mean that as a compliment.

--- Meanwhile, P.J. Fleck, the little wideout that could, splits the seams on his routes, latches on to everything, then darts away from defenders.

--- And Hamilton? He's starting to make his move. Finally.

--- Speaking of making his move … Jed York, the 24-year old son of 49ers owner John York, is moving in at team headquarters. Jed, who was working in New York earlier this year, has moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and will officially join the organization on a full-time basis today as the team's special projects manager. He will be involved in several aspects of the general operation and obviously is being groomed for bigger things.

--- Mike Singletary is lighting a fire under several of the team's defenders, particularly linebacker Jamie Winborn, not that he's one guy that needs it.

--- Marcus Maxwell has made his mark. The seventh-round receiver made a few catches of notice, using his big body and a burst of athleticism to go high in the air to snag one ball with a defender wrapped around him. Maxwell, along with fifth-rounder Rasheed Marshall, is a project that will have to be developed, but both rookies have some impressive raw skills.

--- An early sidelight – or sideshow – of minicamp came during opening day when a man calling himself Kweli Armstrong could be seen running wind sprints in front of the team facility before team security finally put a stop to it. Armstrong, claiming he's a former semi-pro player, said he traveled 2,300 miles from Louisiana because he decided it was his fate to join the 49ers and he desired a tryout with the team. He did his sprints in front of a sign that read, "I'm not crazy. I just want 1 chance."

--- Armstrong didn't get the tryout. Nolan scoffed when it was brought up by a reporter. Anyway, how could the Niners possibly give this guy a tryout with the team when Jerry Rice can't get one?

--- Though he would still carry a certain aura about him, and isn't entirely washed up yet at age 42, Rice would be no better than a fourth receiver, if that, on this team of so-so receivers. That's reality, no matter what Rice loyalists – aka dreamers – want to believe.

--- We would much rather see David Boston, who could legitimately be this team's No. 1 receiver, but it's becoming pretty apparent that guy's not cut out to be a Nolan Niner.

--- Who says Jeff Ulbrich can't cover? The sixth-year veteran was draped all over tight ends and running backs during passing plays in team drills, and is really developing into a complete linebacker.

--- Julian Peterson looks pretty good stretching with teammates and doing a few light individual drills. It's totally the right decision to keep him out of any full-throttle activity until training camp, but the guy almost looks like he could step right in any day.

--- Bryant Young and Marques Douglas as the starting defensive ends. Who would have thought it would work out that well for the 49ers when Nolan announced the team was switching to a 3-4 scheme?

--- The key for the Niners, however, will be how the guy plays who lines up between those two tackle-sized types.

--- That very well could be Isaac Sopoaga, who is healthy and finally appears to be getting the hang of things. Sopoaga is following the ball much better and is getting a real feel for the noseguard position where, frankly, he'll clearly be the team's best option when ready.

--- It looks like Sopoaga will be ready before similarly massive-sized rookie Ronnie Fields, who is going to need at least a training camp and preseason to get where Sopoaga is now.

--- This is not meant to discount Anthony Adams, the starter last year at left tackle, but when you see Adams line up in Jeremy Newberry's face, you realize he could have trouble holding firm against the NFL's big, beefy centers and absorbing blockers, which is the noseguard's duty in this 3-4 scheme.

--- Eric Heitmann has increased his strength and is good enough to hold onto his starting position at right guard, but David Baas is going to make that very difficult for him.

--- The Niners are getting bullish on bullish Steve Bush.

--- We're not going to rush to snap judgments, but to see the transformation in energy and structure in minicamp practices compared to last year, there definitely was something missing in the way the previous coaching regime operated.

--- That new vigor and discipline derives from Nolan, but it also comes from his hand-picked coaches, who themselves are extensions of Nolan.

--- "Coaching is teaching, and what gets me going out there is I'm watching our (coaches) really teaching and coaching the guys up," Nolan said. "As simplistic as this term is, it's parenting also. I mean, somebody said (something) about the way they're coaching them, being hard on some of the guys and tough on them. There is some tough love involved when you're teaching and coaching, and that's the way it ought to be."

--- And that's the way it is. After the mad scramble and transitional tumult since Dennis Erickson and Terry Donahue were fired four months ago, the new tone now has been set for the organization to move forward.

--- Of course, the Niners aren't getting ahead of themselves. They've only just begun to make strides.

--- "There's a long road ahead," said Smith, saying it like he knew every word to be true.


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