Things looking up for injured linemen

When the 49ers line up against the San Diego Chargers on Thursday in their exhibition finale, they could have both Jeremy Newberry and David Baas lining up along their offensive line. It wasn't long ago that the Niners didn't even know if those key linemen would be ready for the start of the 2005 season next month. But after two days of practice without any setbacks, both players are going strong in their return from serious injuries, and that might land both on the field against the Chargers.

Coach Mike Nolan said as much after Tuesday's practice when asked about his plans for Thursday's game.

"I think he's doing this for he can," Nolan said of Newberry's push to get back on the field. It was just a few weeks ago that the two-time Pro Bowl center told SFI that he was behind in his rehabilitation and comeback from a June surgery – the third surgical procedure on his troublesome right knee. But now he says he could play if there was a game today.

"He wants to see what it's like," Nolan continued. "If he plays, he won't play much more than a quarter. I'd like to get (Baas) in this game to see him play some, too. How much, we'll wait and see, because there's a conditioning factor."

With Newberry, as everybody knows well by now, it's primarily a pain factor.

How much can the big guy deal with? He has been dealing with a lot in his attempt to get back on the field in 2005. His right knee has virtually no cartilage remaining, but Newberry feels it now is almost strong enough to give it a full go in live combat.

Newberry practiced without restrictions in full pads during Monday's two-hour session – his first practice since his knee problem resurfaced after the team's May minicamp. He participated in a limited capacity Tuesday as a precaution, but said his knee and right leg are responding "better than I anticipated it being."

"I'm just trying to be smart about it and not overdo it, but I was happy with how it felt today when I worked out," Newberry said. "My practicing in pads is progress, and then I wasn't too sore today, which is a good thing. The pain's not too bad. It didn't swell too much and it's not hurting too much. Right now, I'm having a pretty good day again. I practiced pretty hard on it yesterday and I'm kind of excited it's not killing me today. I kind of figured when I woke up it would be tough to walk today, and that wasn't the case."

When told that Nolan was considering starting him Thursday – just three days after his return – Newberry said, "I guess that's my plan then. I'm up for either way. I'm excited about playing again. If I had to go out and play today, I could go play. I'm confident how it's going right now."

Playing against the Chargers would represent a sudden turnaround for Newberry, who doctors have given only a 50-50 chance of playing at all in 2005.

But the stalwart eighth-year veteran is no stranger to playing with pain or injury. Newberry played all 16 games with a severed ligament in his ankle in 2003, which he considers perhaps the best season of his career. Newberry rarely practiced that season but anchored an offensive line that finished third in the NFC in both rushing and total offense. Both he and Nolan can foresee a similar situation this year, though Newberry probably will require major surgery to fix the knee whether he plays this year or not.

Playing Thursday also would be a quick turnaround for Baas, the rookie who also returned to practice Monday after missing training camp with a third-degree tear of his right hamstring.

Baas, the Niners' second-round draft choice in April, was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard the minute he arrived in San Francisco and was gaining a stranglehold on the position entering training camp.But he tore his hamstring July 22 while running up a hill near his home in Wisconsin. He was expected to miss six weeks with the injury but has made it back ahead of schedule.

"I'm not going to let this set me back," said Baas, who also has experience playing center. "It's not quite up to par yet, but it's going to get better every day. I'm doing everything. They're not holding me back at all. I'm just trying to get out there and push, see how far I can go. I have to go out there and get my technique back, my footwork everywhere. After not doing it for four weeks, it kind of takes a little while."

But Baas' eyes widened when it was suggested that, after three days of practice, he could be on the field Thursday for his professional debut.

"I'd love to play," he said. "I'm just getting back in the swing of things, but I think my excitement for the game overshadows anything that's wrong with me."

The Niners' injury-plagued line can use some of that excitement. It also can use both Newberry and Baas, particularly since Eric Heitmann – Newberry's summer replacement as the team's starting center – won't play Thursday because of his own knee problems.

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