Johnson proving himself all over again

The doghouse has been a pretty crowded place in 49erland for holdover veterans since Mike Nolan arrived last year, and it's probably not a stretch to say Eric Johnson once resided there. So the sixth-year player - owner of the most prolific receiving season ever by a San Francisco tight end - has had no problem proving himself all over again during training camp this summer.

And, yes, it was necessary for Johnson to prove himself all over again, even though the last time he stepped on the field for the 49ers he became the first tight end in 31 seasons to lead the team in receiving on his way to setting franchise records for a tight end with 82 receptions for 825 yards.

But that was 2004. And for Nolan's Niners, circa 2006, 2004 is a football lifetime ago that everybody's trying to distance themselves from like a forgotten memory.

"I feel like football is a game where you focus on the present and move to the future," Johnson said Tuesday after another day of roaming the practice field as the team's top underneath target in the passing game.

And in the present, when earlier this year Nolan began formulating his plans for moving forward in 2006 after his debacle of a head-coaching debut in 2005, he had very little to draw on about what to expect from Johnson, who suffered a torn plantar fascia in his right foot during training camp last year, then aggravated the injury in September and never played a snap for the team last season.

That alone put Johnson in the doghouse, because Nolan is all about the here and now and how it relates to his master plan for the future. And Johnson was not looking big in those plans at the end of Nolan's debut 4-12 season.

"When I think about Eric right now," Nolan said after Tuesday's morning session, "what jumps out at me is last year I didn't see him at all."

Johnson wasn't around the team much after the 49ers placed him on injured reserve Sept. 22 - a move Johnson wasn't happy with - and Nolan dropped a few cryptic hints near the end of the year that perhaps Johnson just wasn't a Nolan kind of guy.

And if you're not a Nolan guy on this team, you better start lining up your next means of employment.

Johnson wasn't about to let any kind of misinterpretation linger into the offseason.

As soon as the season was over, in his individual post-season discussion with the coach, Johnson told Nolan that he was committed to the 49ers and wanted to be with this team. To prove it, Johnson said he wouldn't miss a workout session during the team's offseason schedule.

And then he went out and did just that.

"Since he said that, he has been right on the money," Nolan said. "He's done everything we've asked, and everything he said he would do."

Johnson didn't have much choice. Even though he displayed his commitment by being a regular at the team facility as winter turned into spring, the 49ers went ahead and drafted phenom tight end Vernon Davis with the No. 6 overall selection in the NFL draft, then understandably plopped him down in the starting lineup.

Johnson vented his unhappiness about that decision shortly after the draft - "Of course, I wasn't cheering them on for it. Obviously, before the draft it wasn‘t my No. 1 priority to have them take a tight end," Johnson said when SFI asked in May for his reaction to the team selecting Davis - but then bit his lip and put his nose to the grindstone.

And that hard work and determination - not to mention smooth route running and sticky hands that so far have made him a summer standout - has been evident since the day camp began July 28.

"I almost feel like a rookie, almost like I have to start over," Johnson said. "I never played for coach Nolan; it was something where he's never seen me play. I had a good season a couple of years ago, but that's totally in the past. So I felt like I had a lot to prove, and I want to prove to my teammates and to coach Nolan that I'm here to work and that I don't take anything for granted."

"But most importantly," Johnson continued, "I think I'm just trying to prove to myself that I can get back out there and be better than I've ever been. It's not competing with another guy, but just being better than I've ever been before."

Johnson has looked as good as ever as he gradually learns the many new responsibilities of the F-back position in Norv Turner's offense, which all the tight ends must learn as part of their duties. It adds a lot of shifting and blocking to what Johnson must do, and it doesn't always feature him as a receiver, which the team's previous West Coast system often did.

But Johnson has shown confidence in the new system, and that has marked him as one of quarterback Alex Smith's top summer targets along with wideout Antonio Bryant.

Johnson, in fact, already is turning into something of a security blanket for Smith, a dump-off option Smith can count on when his other receivers are covered downfield and the QB must get rid of the ball.

"It's tremendous to have Eric in there," Smith said. "He's so good between the hashes, between the numbers, he's so good with this body control, such a good route runner. I don't know what it is. He finds a way to go get open. We can run anything in there and Eric will find that hole. He's a guy to go to. It's pretty reassuring to have there, a guy you know that's going to get open."

And a guy that knows how to get out of the doghouse and back on the field. Johnson did it the old-fashioned way with hard work and commitment, and now he's letting his play do the talking.

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