Battle to be a three-way No. 1?

Now that David Boston is out of the picture, and there will be no hotshot rookie like Braylon Edwards entering the picture, Arnaz Battle clearly is being groomed to be the 49ers' No. 1 receiver at the flanker position once occupied by guys such as Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. "He's taking command of his position, the way he plays it," coach Mike Nolan said. But Battle also currently finds himself No. 1 at two key positions on special teams, meaning something's got to give in the months to come.

And though it has become obvious this spring that the team has big plans for him at receiver – where Battle averaged 17.9 yards on his eight catches last year, the best average of any player on the team with that many receptions – Battle is showing no pretentiousness that he's earning himself an exclusive role in the team's 2005 offense, even if that's becoming fairly obvious to everyone else.

When asked during team workouts this month if coaches are concentrating his duties at receiver now, Battle indicated he also has other important things to worry about.

"Who knows?" he said. "I'm still No. 1 gunner. I'm still No. 1 punt returner. Right now, I'm also a starting receiver. But who knows what it's going to be for me? I just try to get better at whatever position I am on the field."

Only Nolan, new receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and the rest of San Francisco's coaching staff know for sure what the ultimate plan is for Battle in 2005. But those who have been watching the team closely this past month have a pretty good idea.

Battle, looking smooth and skilled as he breaks into precise routes and latches onto passes, has taken over at the "Z" position in the team's new West Coast offensive system formerly made famous in San Francisco by Rice and Owens, arguably the two greatest receivers in 49ers history.

The "Z" usually is the first target in the progression of most receiving plays, and the 49ers are confident that Battle – despite his lack of experience at receiver – is ready to prosper in the role with breakout performance.

"I'm pleased with Arnaz Battle's progress," Nolan said. "It's a competitive (receiver) group, but I'd say if anybody is performing a little more consistently (than others), it would have to be Arnaz."

While Nolan makes an attempt to stay reserved with his praise, it is obvious that Battle's skills and potential at receiver have made quite an impression on the new coaching staff in the months since they arrived on the scene.

In March, before coaches got an opportunity to see the team's holdover receivers in action, there was heavy speculation the Niners would bring in a veteran talent such as Boston to take over No. 1 duties on a young group that didn't appear to have many candidates for that role.

When that didn't happen by the time the draft rolled around, it was expected the 49ers would use one of their high Day 1 picks to grab a prospect to compete for that role, perhaps even Michigan stud Edwards with the overall No. 1 pick.

That didn't happen, either. And Battle is the biggest reason it didn't, even though the team also appears pleased with the progress of holdover starting split end Brandon Lloyd.

"Arnaz has done well," Nolan said. "Even in that first minicamp (in early April), he showed some real signs. You know, the expectation going into that first minicamp was not that great. He'd only caught eight balls (in two NFL seasons) up to this point, so I really didn't see him.

"But then, what I did see, I think he's very capable of being a starter in the NFL and playing very well. You can tell when a guy runs to the huddle and runs out of the huddle, he knows what he's doing as opposed to a guy that's kind of tip-toeing out there and trying to see if his splits are right and looking around like, ‘Am I in the right spot? Is somebody going to jump my tail?' He doesn't do that. He runs out. He gets lined up, gets ready to go. He knows what he's got to do. I'm very pleased with him."

Nolan also likes what he has seen Battle do on special teams. He was the star of the 49ers on those units last year, earning Pro Bowl alternate honors for his prowess returning kicks and also covering them as the teams' gunner on coverage units.

Battle ranked sixth in the NFC in returning punts last year, returning one kick 71 yards for a touchdown against Arizona, and also was fourth on the team with 16 special teams tackles. He has remained No. 1 on the depth chart at both punt returner and gunner through the team's April and May minicamps, and he continues to take both roles seriously despite his burgeoning responsibilities at receiver.

When SFI asked Battle if there was more commitment now to making him a receiver, he responded, "It's hard to tell. I'm still out there returning punts. I'm still doing the gunner's work. I'm still in there trying to become a better receiver. It's hard to tell. But just looking at the depth chart, I have moved up as far as receiver. So I have kind of focused on a little bit more at receiver. At the same time, I'm still the No. 1 returner and doing other things on special teams."

But probably not for long.

If Battle's to become a starting receiver and integral part of the team's passing plans, he really can't continue those duties on special teams, too.

"It would be difficult for that," Nolan admitted. "It's a possibility. But, I would like to think somebody out of this draft would be one of those guys. Our West Virginia kid (fifth-round pick Rasheed Marshall) might show some promise in that area as far as returning, taking some pressure off him there. But we have to wait and see. We're certainly working toward that goal. I don't want to put everything on one player's plate if we don't have to."

The 49ers would rather just put a steady stream of passes on Battle's plate.

If that's the case, Battle says he'll be ready. He has raved repeatedly about everything he has learned – and the progress he has made – the past two months under Sullivan's tutelage. And he's particularly excited that coaches have shown such confidence in putting him in such a prominent role at the "Z" position.

"It shows a lot," Battle said. "I'm just working hard, taking in coaching, trying to be a leader and help the younger guys that have come in and get this thing rolling. I think I've made some big steps, but I really don't put all my focus as far as being No. 1, No. 2, or whatever. I just look at making myself better and going out and being very coachable and doing what coach Sullivan and the offensive coordinator are asking me to do.

"We're a young receiving corps, but we have a lot of talent, and the experience is going to come. We have the talent, we have the ability, we have the coaches in place. We just have to go out there and execute on the field."

In that regard, don't be surprised if it's Battle leading the way for that young group when the games get real in September.


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