Prelude to pads

It was only practice in shorts and helmets, but the 49ers got things rocking Sunday to begin the team's 2007 training camp. The real action begins Monday when the pads go on, but it got pretty lively before a crowd of 3,000 at team headquarters during an afternoon session that featured fresh legs and vocal chirping from a team that begins the summer riding a wave of hope and high expectations.

--- High expectations? Quarterback Alex Smith says there's nothing left for the 49ers to do now than shoot for the sky. "We have high expectations for ourselves, higher than a lot of those that are out there," Smith said Sunday. "But that doesn't change anything. We have to go out there and earn everything and accomplish it ourselves. We've got a lot ahead of us, and it's the next step in our progression. All the steps are big, and this is the next one."

--- As he grows more comfortable in his role, Smith figures to be stepping a little more lively this season. His athleticism and mobility began to surface as the season wore on last year, but those virtues actually are strengths in his game and something that should become more evident this season as he progresses in his development.

--- Said Smith: "I can guarantee you there will be points in a game when I'm going to have to run, I'm going to have to use my feet, and that's without a doubt. And the goal is just to be ready when those come, to go take advantage of them. That's something that I think I can bring to the table and need to continue to use."

--- Of course, it's Smith's arm that means more than anything to the 49ers, and he looked a little rusty to begin the summer Sunday, misfiring on several short and intermediate passes.

--- Contrary to last year, Smith didn't air it out much at all, which makes one wonder if there will be a shift in philosophy on the long ball with new offensive coordinator Jim Hostler now calling the plays. Hostler is incorporating some West Coast wrinkles into the vertical offense that was put in place by Norv Turner last year, and by all the dinks and dump-offs the 49ers were throwing in team drills Sunday, the design looked strikingly more West Coast than vertical. Maybe that will change when the pads go on.

--- Even with burner Antonio Bryant now an ex-49er, the team still has the speed to go deep with Ashley Lelie and rookie Jason Hill, who showed some afterburners after taking some slant passes over the middle and streaking upfield. Hill flashes talent practically every time the ball comes his way, and it's going to be interesting to see where he fits in at receiver. He might force his way into the rotation.

--- And, yes, Lelie made it through a whole day of practice. If he's going to help this team, the time to start showing it is now.

--- Lelie and Darrell Jackson, who each missed virtually all of the team's spring practices with lingering injuries, both were up and running to begin training camp. Officially, Jackson and Arnaz Battle begin the summer working as the first-team receivers with Lelie working with the second team.

--- Getting back to those expectations for a moment, this is Mike Nolan's interesting take on the subject: "I like the expectations, but more importantly, I like the reasons that we have expectations. This is going into our third year of putting this together and building a foundation and putting some walls on it, and hopefully we can put a roof on that thing this year. I hope that's the difference for us."

--- Moran Norris is a heckuva fullback, a real bulldozer in front of Frank Gore, but the 49ers are likely to follow a trend similar to last year when they began games in two-tight end sets just as often as with two-back sets. Get used to seeing a lot of Vernon Davis and Billy Bajema on the field together with Gore in an empty backfield. With Davis and Bajema shifting and going in motion – and occasionally making like an H-back – it gives the team a lot of options.

--- Gore is just relentless. He just goes all-out every play, and he looks a little quicker now with an extra burst in the open field, something Gore said he would work to improve in the offseason by slimming down a few pounds. The guy is so shifty, instinctively finding crevices as they open and shift. He's a wrecking ball with moves.

--- After missing all of spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgeries, right guard Justin Smiley and left tackle Jonas Jennings made their return to the first unit. Jennings showed more rust than Smiley, missing a few snap counts to go along with a false start.

--- Conspicuously missing from the line mix was the granddaddy of the unit, bruising Larry Allen, who is beginning to make people wonder if he's still a 49er or not. That type of conjecture will end today, Nolan said, when Allen reports to camp at 8 a.m. after getting an excused absence from Nolan to miss Saturday's check-in and Sunday's practices due to, the coach said, "personal reasons."

--- If and when Allen appears, it will be the first time anybody's seen him on the field with the team this year. He also got a bye from Nolan to miss the team's May minicamp and June organized team activities. That was cause for some circulating rumors that Allen might be considering retirement, but Nolan said that's not a subject that has ever been broached in conversations between the two, and he fully expects Allen to be steamrolling opponents in the run game once more this season. But until he gets here, nobody can be completely sure what's up with the big guy.

--- The 49ers placed defensive end Melvin Oliver, who tore knee ligaments in June OTAs, on the active physically unable to perform list instead of sending him straight to the injured reserve list, which is still likely to be his ultimate 2007 destination. Oliver now has a roster designation until near midseason, when the 49ers will have to make a decision whether to activate him or place him on IR. Explained Nolan, "He is somebody that is likely to get to mid-season, but when we get to that point, we will have to make that decision to put him on IR. We are going to do it this way rather than just IR-ing him through the training camp. We are going to leave that door open for us to do that. But also realistically, that means that he will have a better opportunity to come back from the injury. It actually is our way of doing the player right, because he gets a credit on the season."

--- Bryant Young, looking as robust as ever, will sit out of camp until later this week after having an epidural shot to relieve some back pain. Nolan says it is nothing to worry about and is "more of a preventative thing than anything."

--- Parys Haralson has come to play. Keep an eye out for that guy. After his rookie season was washed out by injuries, the urgency to perform is quite evident in Haralson from Day 1. He has some serious competition just to make the roster this year, but with the way he blows in off the edge, he easily could carve out a role as a situational pass rusher – if not more.

--- It looks like Marcus Hudson jumped the gun by one day. An overzealous Hudson clotheslined Thomas Clayton after the rookie tore down the sideline on a running play, sending Clayton sprawling to the ground. It makes one cringe to think what that one might have looked like in pads.

--- San Francisco receivers better get used to Nate Clements. He is going to be in their hip pocket all season. On several throws towards Clements on Sunday, he looked more like the intended receiver that the wideout he was covering, being as how he ended up closer to the ball when it arrived. As advertised, Clements is really looking like one of those special cornerbacks that can make a difference.

--- Rookie Tarell Brown made his presence known in coverage with a few nice plays, including an interception of a Trent Dilfer pass.

--- It's a definite logjam at receiver, particularly for journeyman veterans such as Bryan Gilmore and Taylor Jacobs, but Jacobs made an impression Sunday, both with some fine tiptoe catches along the sidelines and some good recognition and sure hands fielding punts.

--- Did we say punts? Just start calling Andy Lee, "Thunderfoot."

--- Enough of this prelude. The pads go on Monday morning, and that is what it will be all about in evaluating the 2007 49ers. "Tomorrow, we get the pads on," Nolan said late Sunday afternoon. "Today, obviously we had to run out in shorts. So it's hard to tell. It was a little like an OTA today. But the energy was good, no complaints about that. Enthusiasm was all around. The enthusiasm was there, which it is always there on the first day. So nothing really stood out to impress me one way or another. Like I said, until we get the pads on, it is hard to tell. Tomorrow we are going to see a lot more."

Let the hitting begin.

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