Rookies hungry to help 49ers come of age

They are the young, the bold and - considering the team they play for and their place on it this year - the brave. The 49ers' 2006 draft picks are out to make a difference on a squad that creeps into the season full of uncertainty. Several will play prominent roles from the get-go, but they're eager to face the challenge and ignite a rise toward respectability, and might be good enough to do it.

"That's one thing I can say about this rookie class," fourth-rounder Michael Robinson said. "We have some football players. We can perform and go out there and make plays. It's an attitude type of thing. We want to make a difference."

The time to do so is fast approaching. The 49ers could have three rookies in the starting lineup when they open the season Sunday in Arizona against the Cardinals. Make it four if you include Brandon Williams, who will begin the season as the team's primary kick returner on special teams.

First-round picks Vernon Davis and Manny Lawson definitely will start at tight end and outside linebacker, respectively. Sixth-round pick Melvin Oliver also will start if the team begins in a 4-3 defensive set, though coach Mike Nolan has indicated he might tinker with different ideas up until opening kickoff in the desert.

Robinson will play a key role as a third-down back and be instrumental on special teams. Fifth-rounder Parys Haralson might have been an opening-day starter at linebacker had he remained healthy this summer - he's expected to immediately vie for playing time when he returns in the next few weeks - and sixth-rounders Delanie Walker and Marcus Hudson also were impressive during the exhibition season and could find themselves on the field with significant roles as the season progresses.

Nolan, to be sure, knows this group is a big part of the team's future. But, since training camp began at the end of July, they've also become a big part of the present.

"They'll be an integral part of the successes that we have," Nolan said Wednesday. "Without them, we're not nearly as good. So I would hope that they would contribute quite a bit this year and perform up to our expectations."

The 49ers have had to force-feed several of their rookies out of necessity this summer, and perhaps even out of desperation as the team looked to get its best 11 players on the field on a defense that struggled in the preseason.

But those players came on as the preseason progressed. It was a virtual coming out party for several of them during Friday's 23-14 victory over the San Diego Chargers in San Francisco's exhibition finale, when seven of the eight draft picks who made the final roster (Haralson didn't play) shined in some capacity.

"Any time we got the ball around us, we took advantage of the opportunity," said Hudson, who had two interceptions, three passes defensed and two tackles against San Diego. "Everybody's hungry. All the young players want to get that opportunity to change things around in this organization."

Hudson will play on special teams and figure in as a backup cornerback in his first NFL game Sunday. Most of his draft classmates will have more significant roles.

Davis already appears to be one of the best pure talents the 49ers will put on the field. The No. 6 overall pick has gotten his blocking up to speed by NFL standards during the summer, and he said, "Now I just want to get my hands on the ball more. But that's going to come."

Walker, when he returns from a separated shoulder later this month, also could find a niche in the offensive plan as the 49ers look to find ways to get the ball in his hands to take advantage of his explosive talent. Walker had a 34.3 average returning kickoffs during the preseason and also was fourth on the team with six receptions.

Robinson led the 49ers this summer with nine receptions out of the backfield and also rushed for 99 yards, including 59 punishing yards in the preseason finale, when Robinson averaged 4.9 yards a pop and scored two touchdowns while bulldozing San Diego defenders. He will immediately factor into the backfield plans behind starter Frank Gore and backup Maurice Hicks.

"It's either hit or be hit in this game," Robinson said. "You want your teammates to be able to look at you and say, ‘You know what? This guy can get it done.' I've been trying to work my butt off all preseason, all training camp, to let the whole team know, especially the veterans, the guys that have been here, that those guys can count on Michael Robinson."

The Niners will be counting heavily on Lawson from the start of his career on a defense that lacked a pass rush during the preseason. Oliver, one of the big surprises of the summer, also has worked his way into the defensive forefront and will be a primary contributor even if he doesn't start. Oliver tied for fifth on the team with 11 preseason tackles.

Like Davis, Lawson is handling the situation he has been thrust into with maturity and confidence. That seems to be the trend for all the rookies.

"We've been here for a while, we're now established and we're comfortable in our assignments," Lawson said. "I know that I'm playing the game faster now and not afraid to make mistakes out there. We still have a couple of days of practice to improve and we're going to be ready (for Arizona). It's going to be all fun and games."

Besides physical prowess and playmaking ability, the rookies also have brought a certain character and attitude to the team. Some of them already are showing the early signs of developing into leaders.

For any of that to really matter, they'll have to get it done on Sundays now that the real games are set to begin. But the Niners have to like what they've seen so far, and also the promise of looking for more and more to come.

"When we drafted a lot of these young players, we talked about them stepping up and responding in adverse situations in (games)," Nolan said. "I've noticed the leadership. There's a lot of guys inspiring one another out there in that young group.

"Some of our players that I look for to be our best players in going forward are our young guys. They're not only good players, but I believe they're very good character people, which is a key when you're building a championship team. Although they're young players, it's evident to me all those guys fit what it's supposed to look like when you're a championship team."

Those young players take their first step in that direction as 49ers on Sunday. It's a big step, but not one they don't appear prepared ready to handle. And that could mean an immediate leap forward for the Niners.

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