Seen, heard & examined at 49ers training camp

Seen, heard and examined at 49ers training camp as we catch up on some of our observations over the past few days:

--- You notice it right away. Frank Gore is conspicuous by his absence in team drills and 7-on-7s. The skilled presence, the churning power, the quick burst and acceleration – it really makes you appreciate pure talent when it isn't there anymore.

--- Well, of course, Gore still is there – he just isn't practicing with the team after breaking a bone in his hand Monday. But he's working as hard as ever. While the team conducted its lone padded practice of the day Thursday morning, Gore was on the artificial turf adjacent to the practice field running sprints and doing cardio work with the team's conditioning coaches. He was dripping in sweat from head to toe – literally – so you know this is one guy that wants to get back on the field in the worst way.

--- And Gore's on schedule to return as planned Monday, when he will be fitted with a cast. The 49ers won't want him to be banging that hand around until it heals fully, so it will be interesting to see just exactly how he'll be used in practice. Could you imagine Gore wearing one of those "off limits" jerseys that the quarterbacks adorn throughout summer drills?

--- It's a drastic dropoff in performance at running back without Gore in there. We're a big Maurice Hicks fan, but the guy simply isn't as consistent as you'd like or expect a veteran of his talent to be. He lets a routine pass slip through his hands here, then misses a cut through the hole there. This is Hicks' time to shine, and we're only getting the occasional glimmer.

--- Michael Robinson was held out of practice again Thursday for the second consecutive day after his sudden bout with dehydration sent him to Stanford Hospital on Tuesday morning. M-Rob is rarin' to go, but there's nothing wrong with heeding caution and bringing a guy back a day late instead of a day early after something like that.

--- So without Gore and Robinson it's … Zak Keasey carrying the football? Yeah, that's right, the guy who has a shot at making the roster as a backup fullback has been getting a load of carries the last few days, and while he has no breakaway speed to speak of (how many fullbacks do?), he doesn't look too bad running up the middle and into defenders. Keasey's one of those hard-nosed, lunch-pail types that works hard and just does enough that he's hard to get rid of.

--- Keasey's a pretty easy-going guy, too, as he held court with a few reporters Thursday. It's interesting to note that Keasey had been a linebacker all his life until he was switched to fullback AFTER his college career at Princeton. The guy never even carried the football in high school, for goodness sake, and today he's playing tailback for the 49ers. Usually it's the other way around – running backs are converted into linebackers as they step up the football food chain.

--- Can Keasey actually make the team, which probably would like to keep only five running backs to free up a roster spot elsewhere? "He's in the best 53. There's always a way. He's done a nice job," coach Mike Nolan said.

--- With the 49ers so depleted at running back, we saw the debut of undrafted rookie Arkee Whitlock, who has a body makeup somewhat similar to Gore and got a few carries at the end of team drills. Will he still be around Monday when Gore returns? Stay tuned. If the 49ers keep the kid gloves on Gore – as they probably should – Whitlock, who was signed Wednesday, might be sticking around for a while.

--- Injury update: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin left practice early with an elbow strain that will require some further evaluation. Starting flanker Arnaz Battle sat out of practice for a second consecutive day to rest his sore knee, which probably is something that will happen a few times this summer. But Battle will be there to answer the bell once the regular season begins.

--- Bryant Young finally returned to practice in full pads after returning on a limited basis Wednesday afternoon. Needless to say, it's good to see the big guy back, though Ronnie Fields didn't look to bad in his place while Young was gone.

--- Something is wrong if linebacker Brandon Moore leads the 49ers in sacks again in 2007, but he seems primed to approach or match his 2006 total of 6.5, as long as the team moves him around in passing situations every now and then like it did last year. Your reigning sack leader cannot – and should not – live on inside blitzes alone.

--- Moore, by the way, is going to be one of the 49ers' best players this season, and he pretty much fits the description of search-and-destroy linebacker.

--- Uh … and so does Patrick Willis. It's scary to think about how good that guy could be, and training camp isn't even a week old yet.

--- The 49ers are going to spend a lot of time in their 3-4 nickel defense this year, and you've got to love that, because it means more of Willis on the field.

--- Vernon Davis is going to leave a lot of defenders in his wake this season if they don't wrap when they attempt to bring him down, because this guy hits like a truck and has some escapability to go along with it. We can envision opponents bouncing off Davis many times this season, maybe even on the same play. Think of a bowling ball meeting pins.

--- It won't happen on this team for a while, if it ever does, but it appears rookie cornerback Tarell Brown has the potential to be starting material. He winds up where he's supposed to be in coverage and he makes plays.

--- Donald Strickland gets burned on a streak route by Bryan Gilmore, then allows Taylor Jacobs to get behind him for a 65-yard touchdown bomb from Trent Dilfer in the same practice. Then he comes back and makes a few nice plays that almost makes you want to forget. But San Francisco's coaches won't.

--- Did we say Taylor Jacobs? When talking about camp standouts, he's creeping toward the front of the line, and not many would have expected that when camp began. But he has great acceleration and deceptively good speed, catches everything, and looks to have notably improved his route-running and presence in the offense. And he looks pretty good and sure-handed fielding punts and kickoffs. If Brandon Williams isn't concerned about his job, he should be.

--- For a guy that was drafted in the third round because of his sure hands, Williams is letting way too many passes hit the turf. In a 10-play sequence at the end of Wednesday's afternoon practice, Williams flat-out dropped a 10-yard flair pass, then had the ball stripped out of his hands – in non-contact team drills – after catching a short pass over the middle and turning upfield. So why does he seem to be so much better catching and securing the ball when it comes his way on a punt?

--- Back to Jacobs for a moment. In one of the better plays we've seen in camp so far, Jacobs got behind Nate Clements on an out-and-up, and Clements simply doesn't bite like that too often. Quarterback Alex Smith, at the last minute, as he's rolling right with defenders in his face and about to run out of room at the sideline, spots Jacobs down the field and heaves a deep pass off his back foot. Jacobs has to adjust to the ball, but then he comes back and makes a diving catch just inside the sidelines.

--- Jacobs got Clements again a day later, going all the way for a touchdown on a streak pattern as Clements – who was in position to make a play – leaped to tip away the pass instead of playing the receiver. He missed, and Jacobs said bye-bye. Again.

--- The sweetest catch so far, however, may have been made by Ashley Lelie, who had three defenders tightly wrapped around him when he snagged a short pass in two-minute offense. Lelie never had control of the pass, and as he was being taken to the ground, he bobbled it all the way down, finally securing it with the fingertips of one hand a few inches from the ground with the rest of his body getting crunched to the turf. That's not the only good thing Lelie has done lately. The veteran is starting to come on.

--- Alex Smith's recognition skills have come a long way since that "Where am I?" rookie season. He quickly spots the open receiver and goes to him. He doesn't lock onto his first option and is instinctively going to his secondary reads. It's all a part of growing up as a quarterback, and the kid is definitely getting there.

--- When Thomas Clayton is on his game and hits the hole with force and decisiveness, he looks like a potential keeper. When he attempts to dance and spin in the backfield, he looks like Kevan Barlow without the size or the speed.

--- Delanie Walker is getting a lot of reps and he's come down with some fine catches. The best was an end-zone grab during which he was sandwiched by three defenders simultaneously. Walker lost his headgear in the confluence of bodies, but obviously not his head as he held up the ball triumphantly while his helmet rolled away.

--- You don't see it much, but when the 49ers go to Moran Norris out of the backfield in their passing game, he has pretty good hands and definitely has a full head of blowing steam when he catches the ball on the run.

--- With Michael Lewis, Keith Lewis and Dashon Goldson – and now Darnell Bing – the 49ers certainly have some imposing size at safety. Bing, who some say needs to transition to linebacker to make it in the NFL, "passes the look test," Nolan said. "That's important, because you want bigger, faster, stronger guys." This quartet at least has the bigger and stronger covered.

--- To be sure, 35-year-old Trent Dilfer hasn't lost his passing touch, even if he hasn't played a regular-season snap since 2005.

--- It's a similar story with Shaun Hill, who seems to be throwing the ball better than he did last year.

--- And if things go as planned, one of them might actually sniff the field in 2007. That would mean the 49ers actually are far enough ahead in a game that Smith can finally put an end to his consecutive snaps streak. He played each and every one of them for the San Francisco offense last year, even at the end of blowout losses at Kansas City and Chicago, which in both cases seemed like they would have been good times to go to Dilfer.


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