Notebook: Clements, Willis voted team MVPs

To say Nate Clements and Patrick Willis made an immediate impact in their first season with the 49ers would be an understatement. The veteran cornerback and the rookie linebacker on Wednesday were named the co-recipients of the Bill Walsh Award, given annually to the team's most valuable player as selected by coaches.

Other top team honors went to Bryant Young, who won the prestigious Len Eshmont Award for the eighth time; center Eric Heitmann, who was named the Bob McKittrick Award winner for the second consecutive year; and linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who won the Matt Hazeltine Iron Man award for the second time in four years.

Clements has made an impact in his first season in San Francisco both on and off the field. The seventh-year veteran from Ohio State has routinely shadowed the opponent's top receiver and leads the team in three key categories with three interceptions, 14 passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He also is third on the team with 100 tackles.

Clements also has been a winner for the team off the field, where he is extremely active in the community, participating in a wide variety of outreach programs throughout the year.

Willis has been one of the NFL's top impact defenders as a rookie, and he goes into the season's final two weeks leading the league with 142 tackles – 20 ahead of his closest pursuer – according to league statistics. The 49ers, in coaches' review of game films, have Willis with 190 tackles.

The NFC's Defensive Rookie of the Month for October and a three-time NFL Rookie of the Week winner this season, Willis becomes the first rookie to win the Bill Walsh Award, which was established in 2004 in honor of San Francisco's Hall of Fame former coach, who died of leukemia in July.

Heitmann, who has bounced back from a broken leg suffered last December to start every game this season, has been on the field this year for every offensive snap and is the first player to win the McKittrick award in consecutive seasons. The award is given annually to the 49ers offensive lineman who best represents the courage, intensity and sacrifice displayed by venerable offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick during his 21 years of service with the 49ers.

Ulbrich, who started his first game of the season last week, has been a key reserve linebacker and special teams player this year. He also won the Hazeltine in 2004, an award that is named after linebacker/center Matt Hazeltine, a 13-year performer who played more seasons at linebacker than any other 49ers player. Known for his durability and dedication, Hazeltine passed away in 1987 from ALS, and Bill Walsh established the award in his honor that year. The award is given annually to the most courageous and inspirational defensive player.

"There's very few victories in a season like this," Ulbrich said Ulbrich, who has 31 tackles on defense and nine on special teams. "But that makes me feel good to be acknowledged and recognized like that."

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The honors for Clements didn't just stop with the Bill Walsh Award. He also was named Wednesday as the team's 2007 Walker Payton Man of the Year.

The prestigious award, unique among NFL honors, recognizes a player for his community service activities as well as his play on the field.

"This is a big transition for me, moving from Buffalo to San Francisco," said Clements, who played with the Bills for six seasons before signing with the 49ers as a free agent in March. "I told myself that one of my goals is to get more involved in the community, as well as being an addition on the field. I stayed in a routine and it's been fun being out in the community. It feels good to help others."

Clements, who recently was named a 2008 Pro Bowl alternate, is extremely active in the community. The star cornerback has become a staple at the team's community Tuesday events.

"It's definitely a personal experience for me, giving back each week. I go home with a good feeling knowing that I helped somebody who's not in the position that I'm in. I know that I'm able, so I'm willing. It's not always about giving money, it's giving time. That's what most people want, just a little bit of time."

As the 49ers' Walter Payton Man of the Year winner, Clements will receive $1,000 to donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Cleveland Ohio, his hometown, and is eligible for the league-wide NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year honor. Clements aunt suffers from leukemia.

The NFL Man of the Year will be selected by a panel of judges including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, Connie Payton (wife of the late Walter Payton), and former players Frank Gifford, Jack Kemp and Anthony Munoz. The Man of the Year winner will receive $25,000 to donate to a charity of his choice.

Clements was selected out of 49ers team finalists Marques Douglas, Alex Smith and Donald Strickland.

Renamed in 1999 for the legendary Chicago Bears Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award has been given annually since 1970. Past winners include many of the league's greatest players, 13 of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Last year, the 49ers selected Bryant Young as the team winner.

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Shaun Hill arrived at training camp this year as the 49ers' No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart without much of an opportunity to move up. That could change next year, if Hill returns to the 49ers.

Hill, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, will make his second career start Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He already has put together the 49ers' best showing from a quarterback this season, and he has a chance to compete for more playing time next year, coach Mike Nolan said.

"Without question, anybody, any position when you step into the lineup and get your opportunity, it's your opportunity to play for a job," Nolan said. "That's what he's been waiting for for six years."

In Hill's first six quarters of play, he has fared well. Hill has completed 78.2 percent of his passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. With Hill, the 49ers have converted 59.3 percent of their third-down opportunities.

Presumptive starter Alex Smith underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer is not likely to play again this season after sustaining a serious concussion.

Neither Smith nor Dilfer played consistently when given their opportunities this season. Hill has gotten off to a strong start. Hill led the 49ers to a 20-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in his starting debut.

Although the 49ers still consider Smith the starter for the future, it is possible they could make him earn his job next season.

"There will be competition," Nolan said. "The more competition you have on your football team, the better for your team."

The 49ers began talking about a contract extension for Hill some time ago, but Hill wanted to wait until the end of the season, Nolan said.

Hill wants a contract structure that would afford him some job security. He has never made more than the NFL minimum salary.

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Dilfer's season is likely over, as the 49ers do not want to take any chance of rushing him back into action after he sustained a bad concussion against the Vikings on Dec. 9.

Nolan announced after Saturday's game that Hill will start the 49ers' final two games of the season. Dilfer, wearing a jacket and tie, was a guest on the pregame show on the NFL Network. He was not in uniform for the game. The 49ers signed veteran free agent Chris Weinke to serve as Hill's backup quarterback.

When asked about his status for the remainder of the season, Dilfer said, "I have no idea. I'll let the medical team evaluate me. We're in good hands (with Hill) right now."

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After rushing for a season-high 138 yards against the Bengals, running back Frank Gore is in a good position to finish with his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Gore, who rushed for 1,695 yards last season, has 919 yards rushing with two games remaining and leads the 49ers with five rushing touchdowns and has raised his average per carry to 4.3 yards.

Gore also is tied for the team lead with 47 receptions for 372 yards. He led the 49ers with 61 receptions for 485 yards last season.

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The 49ers have signed offensive tackle Damane Duckettfrom the practice squad to the 53-man roster. To make room for Duckett on the 53-man roster the team waived tackle Patrick Estes.

The 49ers also re-signed guard Sean Estrada the practice squad and added wide receiver Jerard Rabb to the practice squad. Wide receiver Dominique Zeigler injured his knee during practice late last week and was placed on the practice squad-injured list.

Duckett is in his fourth NFL season and has spent the entire year on the 49ers practice squad. Originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Carolina Panthers in 2004, Duckett has seen action in a total of 20 career games with one start on the defensive line for the Panthers, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. This past offseason, the 49ers moved Duckett to the offensive tackle position.

Estrada went to training camp with the 49ers this past summer after joining the team as a rookie free agent out of the University of Pennsylvania in April. He spent two weeks earlier in the year on the 49ers practice squad earlier this year.

Rabb went to training camp with Dallas after signing with the Cowboys as a rookie free agent out of Boise State this past spring. The 49ers signed Rabb after giving tryouts to three free-agent wide receivers on Tuesday – Rabb, Zac Collie and Sonny Shackleford.

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The 49ers/Bengals game last Saturday night was played in two hours and 38 minutes, making it the third-shortest game in the NFL this season.

The shortest game of year also was played last weekend, when Tampa Bay's victory over Atlanta was played in 2:34. The second-shortest was Pittsburgh's victory over Miami on November 26, which lasted 2:35.

The Cincinnati game was the shortest played by the 49ers since Dec. 16 of 2001, when their 21-0 shutout of the Dolphins lasted 2:36.

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