A busy day & bad news at 49ers training camp

The legendary Bill Walsh dies, Larry Allen arrives, Steve Mariucci returns to his former stomping grounds, Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore breaks a bone in his hand, the 49ers practice in pads for the first time during training camp … and much, much more from a long and extremely eventful day at 49erland.

--- The American flag was lowered to half-staff outside 49ers headquarters on Monday, which turned into a true day of mourning for not only the 49ers family in particular but also the football world in general. Walsh, the Genius, a true original and groundbreaker, the patriarch and architect of arguably the greatest enduring dynasty in the history of professional sports, is dead at age 75, finally succumbing to his three-year battle with leukemia. May he rest in peace.

--- Before the day was over, fans from around the San Francisco Bay Area had come to pay their respects, adorning the exterior of the team facility with impromptu, hand-made signs that reflected what Walsh meant to the 49ers and his place in football history.

--- A personal favorite Walsh anecdote gives a vivid indication of his outside-the-box thinking and human approach to dealing with his team both as people and football players. It was during his first season as 49ers head coach in 1979, when he took his team to play the Rams in Los Angeles, where Walsh was born and spent the early years of his life. Now the frontman of a young and impressionable team, Walsh was worried that his players might want to hit the LA nightlife before the game. So during a team meeting, he dressed up some of his assistant coaches in long hair and wigs and brought them out one by one to get his point across. Bobb McKittrick came out dressed as a pimp, Sam Wyche as a drug dealer and Dennis Green as a prostitute. How many other NFL coaches have ever done something like that?

--- A long string of comments remembering Walsh from former and current 49ers coaches and players, along with coaches, players and prominent figures throughout the NFL, can be read elsewhere on this site. Some of them are very touching.

--- 49ers owner John York already has spoken with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger about creating some kind of state proclamation to honor Walsh and his achievements. But the truth is, Walsh never had many good things to say about York and the way he operated the franchise.

--- Now, back to football…

--- The 49ers hadn't even begun hitting Monday morning during the first padded practice of training camp when Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore suffered a broken bone in his right hand during a non-contact ball-handling drill. The team's central star and best player won't see the field again for another week, and he'll be wearing a cast when he does return. Gore had a brace on the hand when he slumped off the field following the team's afternoon practice, not to mention a glum expression on his face that stretched from ear to ear.

--- Gore's injury normally takes about a four-week healing process. That means he will be ready to return to live action by the end of the preseason, and coach Mike Nolan said early Monday evening, "I've been told he'll be ready for the latter part of preseason, but his participation in the preseason, we'll wait and see." Translation: Don't expect to see Gore lugging the football again until the team's season opener Sept. 10 against the Arizona Cardinals.

--- Of course, this is nothing compared to the other major injuries Gore has endured during his career and come back from strong. Gore has a considerable history of serious injury, requiring major surgery on each of his knees after tearing ligaments in both during his college days at the University of Miami. After becoming the first rookie in 15 years to lead the 49ers in rushing in 2005, Gore had surgery to repair a torn labrum in each of his shoulders. But he responded from that by leading the NFC with a franchise-record 1,695 yards rushing last season, so he doesn't figure to miss a beat because of his latest ding.

--- Nolan says he likes to find a silver lining in any adverse thing that happens, and the silver lining in Gore's injury is that the competition for backup carries behind him will heat up even more between Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks and rookie Thomas Clayton. There will be a lot more practice repetitions for each of them now, and that can't be a bad thing.

--- Clayton was one overworked rookie Monday, getting plenty of action in team drills and then getting the bulk of carries when the 49ers allowed their reserves to go live in a scrimmage that featured about a dozen plays to end the morning practice.

--- It was a day of both good and bad for Clayton. He again displayed he can catch the ball on the move, find the holes on running plays and accelerate through them. But he also got flattened by linebacker Hannibal Navies while attempting to pass block during the scrimmage. And, after a couple of plunges into the line during that scrimmage, Clayton absorbed the wrath of running backs coach Bishop Harris. When Clayton came off the field and fullback Zak Keasey took an inside handoff and hit the hole hard, Harris turned toward Clayton and screamed in his direction, "That's a football player!" Point taken.

--- Return of Mooch: Guess who was back at 49ers headquarters for the first time since he was unceremoniously fired after the 2002 season? Steve Mariucci – who presided over the twilight of the 49ers dynasty, the fall of that dynasty, and the team's early 21st-century rebirth during his days as San Francisco coach from 1997-2002 – was back on the premises to prep for the NFL Network's airing of "Inside Training Camp with the 49ers"on Tuesday. Mariucci will be the show's analyst.

--- Obviously, after listening to Mariucci wax poetic with his memories of Bill Walsh, smooth Mooch hasn't lost his gift for gab.

--- Mike Nolan, by the way, will be wired for sound during Tuesday's practices as part of the NFL Network's program. That promises to be must-hear TV.

--- There was a Larry Allen sighting Monday – finally – and the big guy was looking practically svelte, having trimmed down some 20 pounds – at least – since the end of last season. Allen says he's already down to his playing weight of 340 pounds, but he doesn't look that heavy. "In shorts, he looked real good," Nolan said. "I'll tell him he should start modeling for GQ or something." The guy looks positively ready to rock and roll over opponents.

--- And that, no doubt, will be his intention, as it has been throughout his Hall of Fame career. When asked by SFI on Monday if his goals change at this point of his career, Allen responded, "I want to win games and go to Super Bowls … and embarrass people." Allen certainly has done plenty of that to many unfortunate defenders during his 13 NFL seasons.

--- Allen was a stranger to team headquarters during the offseason, being an excused no-show during all the 49ers' spring drills, May minicamp and June organized team activities. But he took the time away seriously, working out at his custom, state-of-the-art personal gym at his home in Danville. When you're Larry Allen, and have accomplished what Larry Allen has, you do things your own way.

--- And those rumors of Allen considering retirement? He says he has no intention of hanging up his cleats this year and might even play beyond this season. "I'm ready to go," Allen said. "I have a big gym at my house so I started working out there this spring. I'm finally back out here now to hit somebody and have some fun. I'm happy to be back. I'm ready now, everything is cool, and there are no doubts that this is where I want to be."

--- Last year, it was cornerback Shawntae Spencer versus receiver Antonio Bryant. This year, the top daily competition of the airwaves is Nate Clements versus Darrell Jackson. Clements is winning that battle so far. Clements, in fact, is winning just about every battle he faces.

--- It quickly has become apparent that Clements is better at his position than any wide receiver on the San Francisco roster is at their position.

--- Speaking of competitive battles of the airwaves … Manny Lawson covering Vernon Davis is a beauty to watch, particularly for speed freaks. That competitive battle is a gift that just keeps on giving, and will be for several years to come at 49ers practices.

--- Davis had a heated battle with linebacker Brandon Moore during one-on-one pass rush/blocking drills, when Davis got the better of San Francisco's 2006 sack leader twice in a row, burying him in the ground the second time.

--- Davis did Moore again in afternoon team drills, taking a short pass and putting a juke job on the linebacker, who whiffed on the tackle attempt in the open field. The obvious conclusion: Davis has some nifty moves to go with his imposing size and speed.

--- Closing speed: Lawson has it, and that's simply something that can't be taught.

--- It's hit and release in practice. But you can tell already that any collision with rookie linebacker Patrick Willis will come with quite a wallop.

--- Man in waiting: Derek Smith. Waiting for Willis to take his starting position, that is.

--- Brandon Williams had a chance to make a spectacular leaping catch in traffic during the morning practice, but he couldn't come down with the ball, even though quarterback Shaun Hill put it right on his hands. Williams needs to catch those balls if he wants to be more than an afterthought at receiver.

--- It probably should be expected, but the receiver that has the best rapport so far with quarterback Alex Smith clearly is veteran Arnaz Battle, the team's leading receiver among wideouts last year.

--- The word from some Philadelphia insiders is that Michael Lewis, the high-priced free-agent newcomer, has lost it. But the early indications with his new team are that he still has the tools to be an impact safety.

--- He certainly has the size to make an impact. Lewis is a big, chiseled, physical specimen, and when you see him in pads, it's almost difficult to tell exactly what position he plays. At first glance, he could easily pass for a linebacker, and maybe even a tight end or defensive end. The guy is a strapping mass of muscle.

--- So that's the Ashley Lelie that twice led the NFL in average yards per reception. The guy can get open deep, and it's a pleasant thing to see.

--- Playing the run is not supposed to be Tully Banta-Cain's strength, but he blew up a blocking attempt in team drills by Moran Norris, who is one of the league's best fullbacks in that department.

--- If this is Taylor Jacobs' last stand, he's making the most of it. A year in the 49ers system has done him well, and he's looking like a keeper among a crowded group of receivers.

--- Trent Dilfer rolled left after faking right, quickly had Manny Lawson charging into his face, and lofted a pass toward the sideline looking for Jacobs. It was easy pickings for Walt Harris, who casually stepped in front of Jacobs to make the interception, showing his 2006 form when he led the NFC with a career-high eight thefts.

--- Damane Duckett looks the part in his conversion from defensive lineman to offensive tackle, but whose job is he going to take at his new position, particularly with Patrick Estes continuing to show progress in his conversion after entering the NFL as a tight end?

--- Tarell Brown, Donald Strickland, Marcus Hudson. That's going to be a good three-way battle for the team's fourth and fifth cornerback slots. That is, if the team keeps five cornerbacks, which by the look of these guys suggests that's something the 49ers will be inclined to do.

--- Brown, continuing to look like a fifth-round steal, made a nice recovery during the morning scrimmage when he closed on the ball on a deep pass thrown by Luke Getsy and knocked it away from receiver C.J. Brewer, who appeared to have a step on him.

--- Rookie Jason Hill made a fine diving catch on the sideline hashmarks, right in front of the line judge who was part of the officiating crew at Monday's practices. The grab might have required instant replay had it happened on a September Sunday, but the ref ruled it a catch.

--- Darnell Bing made an appearance Monday, when the former USC stud – acquired by the 49ers last week after being released by the Oakland Raiders – stepped up to make a play on an overthrown pass, bobbled it momentarily, then turned upfield for a nice return after making the pick.

--- Alex Smith was on the money with a rocket pass to Bryan Gilmore, who had split the seams of the defense over the middle during afternoon team drills. But Gilmore, turning as the ball arrived, bobbled it in the air, and Mark Roman swooped in for the pick, just like a good free safety is supposed to do, drawing a loud response from fans watching practice from the bleachers.


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