The minicamp checklist

After adding a fresh layer of talent through the NFL draft, the 2008 version of the 49ers will assemble for the first time as a full squad at team headquarters Friday for the beginning of the team's three-day spring minicamp, and story-lines abound up and down and all around the roster. Here's a look at 10 intriguing issues surrounding the team to keep an eye on throughout the weekend.

Shaun Hill at quarterback: It's going to be interesting to see the seventh-year veteran take the helm as the starter from the get-go while Alex Smith eases back into action by taking throws on the side and not participating in team drills. Most observers expect Smith to ultimately head into the season as the starter - privately, that's a scenario the 49ers still are counting on - but the promise of open competition at the position does exist, and it's real. Here's Hill's chance to get a throwing elbow up on that competition, and he knows it. The Niners were 2-0 with him as a starter last year, and nobody has forgotten it. If Hill tears it up from Day 1, why can't he be the starter this year? This minicamp, while Smith finishes the final stages of his rehabilitation, might mean more to Hill than any other veteran.

The Mike Martz offense: Coming soon to a football stadium near you, it's the new-and-ostensibly-improved San Francisco attack now guided by the mad scientist of offense. It's just minicamp, in shorts and helmets, but we're eager to see what new wrinkles Martz brings to spice up the offense, and how well the team already is adapting to it at this early stage. It will also be interesting to see how interactive head coach Mike Nolan is with the offense, or if he opts to simply stay out of Martz's way.

Who lines up with the starting unit at wide receiver? We already know that Martz favorite Isaac Bruce has been anointed as the starting flanker, bumping aside Arnaz Battle, who has started there the past three seasons and proven himself as San Francisco's most reliable wide receiver, not to mention leader in receptions among wideouts each of the past two seasons. Will Battle run with the second team behind Bruce? Or will he be moved over to split end to compete as the starter with newcomer Bryant Johnson, holdover Ashley Lelie and … heck … every other receiver on the San Francisco roster? Battle's skills don't necessarily seem well-suited to split end, but then, everything really is out the window now that Martz has arrived. There are different expectations for receivers in Martz's system, and they are used differently, too. So maybe Battle will find a nice little niche somewhere - like in a regular three-receiver set - if indeed he has been nudged out as a starter.

Jonas Jennings at right tackle: We're waiting to see what's up with the big guy, who hasn't been seen much around the team facility since his season ended abruptly last year after yet another injury. He has been allowed to work out on his own and tend to family matters (his mother has been ill) since the team's workout schedule began more than a month ago. Will he return in shape? Will he return fully recovered after surgery? Will he be welcomed back with open arms by a team that seemed to grow impatient with him last year? And, most pertinently, how will he adjust to the change to the right side after - let's face it - pretty much failing to live up to expectations at left tackle? Inquiring minds want to know.

Vernon Davis as the main man: Is that the way it will be in Martz's offense, finding a way to feature the ultra-talented third-year tight end? Davis was a veritable star of the team's spring drills last year and appeared headed toward a big sophomore season, and then … poof! The season began and he got lost in a bogged down offense just like everybody else. To be sure, part of the job description for Martz in San Francisco will be to bring out the best in Davis.

Kentwan Balmer settling in: The 49ers want to quickly maximize the potential of their first-round draft choice, and that will mean finding out as soon as possible where he fits best along the front wall of their 3-4 scheme. It's important for Balmer to not look completely lost in his first three days of practice as a professional, and if he can pick things up quickly over the weekend, it will bode well for getting him in the lineup as soon as possible.

Will Justin Smith pass the eye test? Speaking of the defensive line … The 49ers just forked out $45 million - $20 million of it guaranteed - for their prize in 2008 free agency, and Smith is expected to not just come in and make things happen at right defensive end, but also to become a team leader and fill a void in that department left by the departure of Bryant Young and Marques Douglas. For a guy of Smith's stature, there is no transition period. He needs to step in immediately and be The Man, and both act and look the part.

The Gore/Foster tandem: So how will the 49ers decide to use Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster, two running backs of starting quality when there's room on the field for just one at the same time? Or will that be the case? Will Martz find ways to get them on the field together? That's likely to happen seldom if at all, and the 49ers certainly want to continue getting the ball in Gore's hands as much as possible. But he won't be expected to be the workhorse of previous seasons, and it should be interesting to see the wrinkles Martz devises to get the most out of both players.

New coaches on the scene: The 49ers now have Tony Nathan as running backs coach and have added veteran coach Chris Foerster in an unusual set-up that will see him share the duties of guiding the offensive line along with holdover coach George Warhop. So, how is that going to work out? And how will Warhop handle it in a full-squad setting? Ted Tollner also steps in as quarterbacks coach/assistant to the head coach, but he's hardly new to the team. Nolan will want to see his new coaches step in and take a hands-on approach right away, and we want to see how players react to the new coaches.

Will Patrick Willis be wearing a red cape? This guy is the 49ers' Superman, no doubt, but last year at this time he was just another lost rookie out there running around without really knowing where to go. That won't be the case this year, and it will be interesting to see if the mild-mannered Willis exudes leadership right away in his sophomore season as much as he exudes greatness.


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