TOP OF THE DAY
For the first time since Terrell Owens bolted the premises for greener and more volatile pastures, the 49ers have a few wide receivers who can legitimately stretch the field. The team had to buy them, but free-agent newcomers Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore have added a dimension the Niners haven't had in the past few years, and particularly last season, when opponents could crowd the San Francisco passing game on the edges and gang up on receiving targets because they didn't have to worry about anybody getting behind them. Bryant, who had another solid day of practice Wednesday, clearly has emerged as the team's top target in the passing game, and as of now, coach Mike Nolan says Gilmore is the frontrunner for the No. 3 role behind starters Bryant and Arnaz Battle, though Gilmore is getting some competition from rookie Brandon Williams and veteran Jason McAddley is refusing to go away. Gilmore, however, probably would dust those two in a foot race. "We didn't have much speed last year in the wide receivers corps, so (Gilmore) gives us some things that we didn't have last year," Nolan said. "Obviously, Antonio Bryant gives us some of the same things." While Gilmore and Bryant each have the quality speed at receiver, it's how they use it to get open and create space underneath for others that makes them effective. While Gilmore says he's "definitely" fast enough to beat quality NFL cornerbacks, he also makes the point that, "You're not going to out-run too many guys in this league. Everybody can run. There's so many great corners back there." Now, at least, the 49ers have some wideouts that will challenge those corners on the run, a must in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's vertical offense.
Turner will be leaving the 49ers after Thursday's practice sessions, but it's for a good reason. Turner will miss Friday's two practice sessions and Saturday's team scrimmage when he departs on a red-eye flight late Thursday to Canton, Ohio, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct its Class of 2006 on Saturday. Turner will deliver the presentation speech for former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who credits Turner with being the major influence that turned him into a successful, Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Aikman asked Turner earlier this year to be his presenter at Saturday's induction ceremony, and Turner - who spent three seasons with Aikman in Dallas before getting his first head-coaching gig in Washington - considers it one of the highest honors he ever has had in football. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I'm excited about going back and doing it," Turner said. "This is as big a deal as I've been involved with. It's as big an honor as I've had as a coach or competitor. It's a real privilege and it means a lot to me." Turner said nobody need worry about the summer progress of the offense while he's away. "We've got a heck of an offensive staff and coaching staff. I think we're on the same page as much as any staff I've been on." Then, with a smile, Turner added, "They'll probably enjoy having me gone a little bit."
After three days in pads, Nolan gave his team an evening off for the first time in training camp Wednesday, with players given a 12 midnight curfew. The 49ers will have their meetings in the morning Thursday, then will practice in pads on their newly-installed turf field for one of the few times in camp. The session will emphasize short-yardage and goal-line situations. A group of NFL referees will be on hand to officiate practice and also give the 49ers a taste of how the league's new rules this year will be interpreted and educate them about any other changes in playing regulations. Missing conspicuously from the short-yardage and goal-line work likely will be linebacker Derek Smith, who usually is right in the thick of such situations. Smith suffered a left quad contusion Wednesday and was held out of the afternoon session. He was limping slightly with his thigh iced and bandaged coming off the field in the afternoon, and Nolan indicated Smith might be held out of Thursday's full-squad practice, which will be followed in the afternoon by a one-hour special teams session.
There is considerable debate whether Shawntae Spencer will ultimately develop into a legitimate No. 1 cornerback in the NFL, but there is no question where he stands on this team. While the 49ers feverishly look to upgrade their talent and quality at cornerback this summer - a task that seems to be succeeding - Spencer is on an island all alone after being moved earlier this year to left cornerback, where most of the league's No. 1 corners reside. Spencer emerged in just his second season last year as the best thing the Niners have going in their secondary, starting 14 games at right cornerback and leading the team with four interceptions - one of which he returned 62 yards for a touchdown - to go along with 14 passed defensed (first on the team) and 76 tackles (fourth on the team). He has picked up where he left off last year as one of the team's smoothest and most consistent defensive performers. Spencer rarely is out of position in coverage, and his developing ball skills were vividly on display when he made an impressive interception (See Plays of the Day) during team drills and followed it several minutes later by slapping away a pass intended for tight end Eric Johnson in the end zone.
PLAYS OF THE DAY
Morning session: Receiver Jason McAddley, continuing to assert himself on a daily basis, slipped behind cornerback Kris Richard and late-arriving safety Mark Roman to haul in a deep spiral from quarterback Trent Dilfer and take it into the end zone.
Afternoon session: Eric Johnson momentarily looked open down the middle on a post route until Spencer closed on the play in impressive fashion. With quarterback Alex Smith sending a wobbling pass to his intended target, Spencer surged in from left corner and leaped in front of Johnson as the ball arrived, taking it away from the tight end with an outstanding leaping grab.
NEWS, VIEWS AND INTERVIEWS
--- Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore are the headliners at running back, but Maurice Hicks can turn the corner as well as either of them.
--- Eric Johnson, always a hard-worker since making it into the starting lineup as a seventh-round draft pick in 2001, has never looked more determined. He's catching everything, and getting a lot of opportunities to do so.
--- As the first week of training camp practices comes to a close Thursday, here is offensive coordinator Norv Turner's take on the progress of quarterback Alex Smith: "I think he's going good. You go at two levels. We want to make sure that the things he does best we're giving him a chance to do, and then we want to make sure he has a chance to grow. We're doing a lot of things and we want to get good in as many as we can. Some of the things we're doing, we may not be able to do this year. But we're going to grow. The things that (Smith) does best, I think he's doing really well right now."
--- As a group of reporters circled around Smith while the QB was extolling the virtues of Turner's coaching and guidance, Gore - usually the shy type - emerged from the background and put his arms around a couple of his media buddies. When SFI asked Gore what he thought of Turner's coaching, the second-year back responded good-naturedly, "He's a good coordinator and I like this offense. I think I'm the man, I'm going to get 1,500 yards."
--- While that's unlikely to happen, we wouldn't be shocked if it did.
--- If safeties have trouble staying with rookie F-back/tight end Delanie Walker, just think what it will be like when linebackers get that assignment.
--- The same, of course, goes for Vernon Davis.
--- Walker ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and while that's not exactly Vernon Davis territory, it's pretty darn close.
--- And, even though he came from a Division II college, Walker isn't backing down to the formidable competition presented by Davis in camp. "My confidence is pretty high," said the impressive rookie. "I feel like whoever I play against I'm going to dominate. I know that Vernon Davis is in front of me, but I feel like I can play as well as Vernon Davis. So whoever lines up against me, I'm going to do whatever I can do."
--- He's a leaper, too: Walker vaulted into the air to knock down a high pass with one hand during morning drills, then pulled it in for a reception while tiptoeing along the sidelines.
--- You'd think that David Baas, the No. 33 overall pick in last year's draft, might be a little more prominent in the 49ers front-line plans by now.
--- After taking a pounding the past couple of days, Michael Robinson is picking it up and appears on the upswing, but he's still the fourth-string running back on this team.
--- Dead man standing: As he watches from the sidelines, the consensus from media observers is that Derrick Hamilton is a goner the moment he's healthy enough to pass a physical. But that won't be for a while. Nolan said Hamilton - out since the opening day of camp with a hamstring injury - won't practice the rest of this week and remains out indefinitely. "And if that changes," Nolan said, "I'll bring his name up. From here on out, let's wait because it will be a while before I talk about him."
--- Switching numbers: Mark Roman turned in the No. 38 uniform he wore during his first two days as a 49er to take the No. 26 jersey formerly worn by Bruce Thornton, who was released Tuesday. Quarterback Shaun Hill also changed Wednesday from No. 2 to No. 13.
--- Kwame Harris has sort of faded into the background of the camp limelight, but he is silently playing big and doing the job at right tackle. Maybe it was premature for observers to give Adam Snyder his job, after all.
--- It's going to be interesting to see what the 49ers will do if Smith bombs like last summer and Trent Dilfer outplays him in the preseason, because Dilfer is routinely making all the throws.
--- Dilfer has endured a reputation as a caretaker NFL quarterback, but when you see him zip the ball on a straight line to receivers as the pocket collapses, you know why he has lasted 13 years in this league.
--- But as the 49ers reach the finish line of the first week of training camp, Smith stands firm atop his pedestal as the team's No. 1 QB. He's comprehensively grasping the offense, is much better now at throwing to spots as his receivers break, and he occasionally uncorks rocket spirals that hit their target on the money and in stride, just to let everybody know that he can do it. He also ran a sweet bootleg in afternoon drills Wednesday, juking the entire defense while rolling out to his left to find Gilmore with a pass on the sideline. Slowly but surely, Smith's game is coming together.
Camp encapsulated: August 2
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