The camp wrap

It began 25 days ago with the resounding noise of hope, vigor and new direction and ended Wednesday with the subdued patter of a heart-broken team still trying to find itself and work through the aftermath of unexplained tragedy. The 49ers' 2005 training camp was like no other the team ever has experienced, and here's a look back at the highs, lows and turbulence that characterized the first summer session of the Mike Nolan era.

Defining moment: When 23-year-old offensive lineman Thomas Herrion slumped to the floor of the 49ers' locker room in Denver late Saturday night, never to rise again, everything that happened before and after to the Niners this summer didn't seem to have the same meaning or importance. The 49ers will go on and move forward, but they never will leave behind the memory of a life cut short – or the way Herrion died.

Best stiff upper lip: Through the shocking circumstances of Herrion's passing, Nolan stayed true to character, always remaining strong and never wavering as the stoic figure everybody else in the organization could look toward for courage and support. Nolan already was weighed down by the multiple burdens facing a franchise attempting to climb from the NFL abyss, but he handled the new load tossed onto his shoulders with powerful dignity and sensitive authority.

The comeback kid: Nobody was giving Tim Rattay much of a chance entering camp to keep his shaky grip on No. 1 status at quarterback, particularly after Nolan snatched it away on the first day of camp to let top draft pick Alex Smith try it on for size. Rattay didn't complain, he didn't back-stab and he didn't let any frustration or self-pity slip into his game. Instead, he stayed healthy, kept working and patiently waited for his chance to show everybody who the No. 1 QB on this team really is. When the opportunity came, Rattay delivered.

Biggest disappointment: It has to be Smith, but more in a figurative and relative sense than because of anything he failed to do on the field. The 21-year-old rookie actually made some nice progress in his development this summer, but it was asking too much for him to become the next Peyton Manning as an immediate starter. The problem was, the team built him up as the Next Greatest Thing to lead the franchise forward, and there was only one direction for him to go when those expectations proved a bit premature.

Camp MVP: We're thinking back day by day, and we're not sure if we ever saw Brandon Lloyd drop a pass this summer. But we sure saw him grab some out of the sky and pick some off the ground before they could make contact with turf. What's more, the guy just plain worked hard, kept focused on the task at hand and showed a new commitment to both the team and his craft. We can't think of anybody who displayed more promise or understated determination while going out and consistently getting the job done.

Best catch: That goes to Lloyd, too, for his insanely spectacular, leaping, one-handed snatch of a hitch pass thrown about four feet over his head during the second preseason game at Denver. Not only did Lloyd have the hops to go up and get it, he also had the soft hand and sticky fingers to bring it down with only one appendage, which was the only way that catch was going to be made.

Worst comeback: Two-time Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry was hopeful he could make it back and play this year on a right knee that is lacking cartilage and endured yet another surgical procedure in May. But it didn't look good during training camp, as the knee wouldn't let him on the field, and his chances of playing in 2005 appear more remote than the 50-50 odds doctors gave him a few months ago.

Best rookie: Disappointing? Yes. A failure? Not even close. Judging by his skill level and potential, if Smith were playing any other position than the most difficult to master in the game, he would be ready to make an immediate impact this season. Once his recognition skills begin to click and he fits into the pace of the pro game, he still just might.

Sleeper Award: The name is Fred Amey. You'll probably be seeing it somewhere on the 49ers roster this season. You might even see the flashy undrafted free-agent rookie from Sacramento State making himself a factor somewhere in the passing and/or kicking games.

Worst camp development: The inability of the Niners to get a consistent pass-rushing push from the 3-4 in their 3-4 defense. If it's not coming from the three defensive linemen up front or the four linebackers behind them, then it won't be coming at all, and the 49ers most definitely need it to come from somewhere.

Best new leader: In Jonas Jennings, the 49ers have a high-priced left tackle who knows that his job consists of more than just blocking for the quarterback and paving lanes for the running game. He grasped a leadership role the moment camp began, even strangling it at times, and there is nothing wrong with that considering the team's considerable offensive void in that department before he arrived.

Worst disappearing act: Where oh where did you go, Rashaun Woods? We know there's a talented receiver in there somewhere. But after two training camps in San Francisco, he still has yet to be seen. Sure, the guy has been hurt, but the only reason he didn't become the forgotten man of camp is because everybody kept bringing up his name in anticipation the 49ers might cut their losses and release the unproductive 2004 first-rounder who made no impact this summer on an offensive unit just begging for him to do so.

Best competition: Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga at noseguard. Their battle for playing time at the point of attack in the new defensive scheme accomplished at least one thing: It made both players better.

Worst injury: It wasn't shaping up as a bad camp for injuries, until the very end when P.J. Fleck and Chris Cooper both came down with shoulder problems that will force each to miss the upcoming season. Fleck's experience and scrappiness were going to help at receiver and, possibly, as a kick returner, and Cooper was a valuable third defensive end whose size and pass-rushing skills are going to be difficult to replace in the new defensive scheme, in general, and the line rotation, in particular.

Best motivational tools: When the 49ers emerge from their locker room for summer practice, they're met by a huge, colorful tarp emblazoned with the words "WIN THE WEST" at the top. Below that bold statement are the helmets of San Francisco's three NFC West rivals, with a red X slashed through each. When the Niners leave the practice field and return to their clubhouse, a tarp reads "FAITHFUL IS BELIEVING." Painted below that slogan is a large mural of the team's five Vince Lombardi trophies, the originals of which can be viewed on the opposite side of the building. If nothing else, that constantly reminded the 49ers this summer of what their targets are.

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