Camp report: Let the pads begin

News and views and quotes and notes as 49ers training camp hit full stride Monday with the team practicing in full pads for the first time:

--- There are times when the 49ers have looked very good on offense in the early stages, and then there are times they have looked particularly ragged, especially in the passing game where the timing and precision are off, which are essentials for success in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's defined scheme. Martz says that's to be expected at this stage of the game, particularly from quarterbacks who are trying to execute the system for the first time.

--- When SFI asked Martz at the end of his meeting with 49ers beat writers Monday afternoon if his quarterbacks – specifically, his competitors for the starting job, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill – are sufficiently on course to reach their potential in his system, the answer was a pretty succinct no without actually using that word. But Martz said that condition would pass with time.

--- "I think right now, it's organized chaos," Martz replied, "and they're just trying to learn all this stuff. They'll start making progress, probably after seven or eight days. Then, they'll feel much more comfortable with this information." As it turns out, the 49ers will be practicing with and against the Oakland Raiders in seven days at Oakland's training facility in Napa. That would be a good time for the offense not to resemble "organized chaos."

--- Smith made some very nice, strong-armed throws during the first padded session, hitting Bryant Johnson in stride in the corner of the end zone with a bullet that also showed some nice touch. Smith needs to start showing command of his passes a lot more like that, because last year, according to statistics provided by the Pro Football Prospectus, Smith led the NFL in rate of passes overthrown among quarterbacks who threw 200 or more passes last season, overthrowing 16.6 percent of this aerials.

--- And for those counting, that's a heck of a lot of spirals spraying over receivers' heads.

--- One thing you really notice this year about the 49ers' promising defense is the depth the team is developing at practically every position. To be sure, the defense still has some question marks – can the revamped defensive line come together and hold together? Where is the pass rush going to come from? – but there are a lot of solid players who will be fighting just to grab the final roster berth at several positions, most notably linebacker and cornerback.

--- "It's never where you want it to be," coach Mike Nolan said when we asked him if the quality of depth on that side of the ball is getting to be where it pleases him. "You look to have your first-round draft choice be a backup the whole year and not have to do a whole bunch. But we're pretty good; we're alright."

--- That the 49ers' defensive depth is "alright" this year seems to be born out by Nolan's own suggestion. Kentwan Balmer – though he probably figures to be a contributor this season, and maybe even a significant contributor – could spend his entire rookie season in a backup capacity on the defensive line.

--- Balmer, by the way, is coming along nicely. He is very thick through the lower portion of his body, which gives him a lot of driving power. Looking at him from the waist down, he shows a considerable resemblance to former 49er Dana Stubblefield. Now, if Balmer's game only ends up resembling Stubblefield's, the 49ers will really be alright.

--- One youngster who could be on the outside looking in because of the team's quality depth is linebacker Jay Moore, a 2007 fourth-round draft choice who still looks like he's struggling to make the transition from college defensive end to outside linebacker in the 3-4 system. Moore looked like a decent prospect last year before an ankle injury in the preseason finale put him on injured reserve and turned his rookie season into a redshirt season, but he doesn't appear to have made a lot of progress since then. He gets stoned often when attempting to provide pressure in pass-rushing situations, and his ability to drop into coverage still is very much a work in progress.

--- Could a guy like Moore get lost in the shuffle? "He might, but Jay is a rookie," Nolan said. "He's familiar with the situation and language and he's further along than a true rookie, but he didn't get to play, unfortunately. It would have been nice if he was on the practice squad or something all last year or got some playing time, but he did not."

--- What about the practice squad for Moore this year? He's eligible, and that would be a good landing pad for him if he doesn't pick it up enough this summer to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

--- There was a lot of energy out there on the field Monday with the pads on, but it's always a matter of balance for defenders who are not supposed to hit through ball carriers. So what was the cry from the defensive huddle as the first unit grouped together for 11-on-11 drills? "Play smartly aggressive!" came the cry from huddle. Now, that sounds like the right approach.

--- Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula truly is the sparkplug of Mike Nolan's staff of assistants. Tomsula bellows with equal parts praise, reproach and instruction throughout the day, and when he barks, people listen. Of course, you can't help but listen – or hear him anywhere on the field.

--- It sure looks like Zak Keasey has moved past Moran Norris as the starting fullback, at least by appearances in practice, when Keasey gets more work with the first team. "That position is kind of fluid, as they say," Nolan said. "It goes back and forth. They're both getting a lot of reps. But (Keasey)'s running with the ones at times. He runs with the ones, (and) a little bit with the twos."

--- Nolan said, "I'll let training camp decide that," when asked what Keasey gives the team that Norris doesn't, but Martz gave an interesting explanation when a similar question was posed to him a different way. " I think Zak has got a real good feel for getting through traffic and getting on linebackers and (defensive backs) as a blocker," Martz said. "He's unusual about it. It's kind of a lost art, if you will. He sees things and reacts to things, very, very well – very quickly and has such good body control that he can avoid and get into little tiny holes and jump through and get to a linebacker. It's hard to find guys that can do that, and he does that very well."

--- The only thing that Martz failed to explain is, how does a 235-pound bulldozer such as Keasey ever jump through a "tiny" hole?

--- Norris made an exceptional catch during team drills that was thrown high and behind him by Alex Smith in the flat. Norris needs to keep doing more of those kinds of things as the competition for his job – and no doubt roster berth, since this team is keeping only one fullback, if that – heats up this summer.

--- Vernon Davis has taken on an unofficial role as team enforcer, and he doesn't like it when San Francisco's offensive players are handled roughly by their defensive counterparts. Particularly when that offensive player happens to be him. After coming to the defense of teammate Delanie Walker on Sunday by jumping in the face of defensive end Justin Smith – an ornery mass of muscle that you don't want to mess with if there ever was one – Davis took offense to a rather high forearm shot from Nate Clements near the goal line Monday after catching a pass in the flat and taking it into the end zone. It was nothing overwhelming, but Davis let Clements know with some jawing after the play that he doesn't want to be messed with.

--- Of course, San Francisco defenders love jawing with Davis, since it's something they do throughout the day just about every day. Davis can both take it and dish it out, and a lot of his defensive teammates are the same way. After he shared words with Clements, safety Michael Lewis – who spends a lot of time matching up with Davis over the course of practices – came up to Davis and playfully leaped into his chest. And as Davis walked away, his flash of fury appeased, Mark Roman, trailing Clements and Lewis, stared him down saying, "You got a problem?"

--- If only these kind of things were the 49ers' only problems.

--- The morning practice ended with the kind of play that gives Shaun Hill a chance at quarterback. With Arnaz Battle flaring out in the flat – kind of like the way Jerry Rice used to do it so well – Hill rolled quickly to his right and fired a strike to Battle in the very corner of the end zone in a perfectly-timed play that was virtually defenseless. Cornerback Tarell Brown didn't have bad coverage on the play, but Battle had a step on him to the corner, and Hill put the ball on the money. Even Neon Deion Sanders wouldn't have been able to stop that. Touchdown, 49ers.

--- Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin was back in action during the afternoon after passing his physical. Franklin had missed the start of camp with a calf/Achilles injury, but he was back in the middle of the defensive trenches with the first unit upon his return.

--- Running back Michael Robinson, who went down and stayed down during Sunday's morning practice, had arthroscopic surgery to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his knee. He'll be out at least a week, but it's a relatively minor injury and could have been a lot worse.

--- Wide receiver Ashley Lelie had a MRI exam that revealed what the team had originally reported after his injury – the veteran has a calf strain. Hmmmmm. It seems nagging injuries prevented Lelie from getting off to a good start last summer, too, and this year he has more competition for a job.

--- Besides that, with the Martz offense now the ticket, the 49ers would like to work Lelie in more and see what he can do as perhaps the team's best vertical threat. The more time he loses, the more the team loses.

--- Josh Morgan dropped a quick slant pass that was right in his hands during the afternoon practice. Now, that was something you won't see very often. Morgan, the sixth-round draft choice with the loping gait, has been catching everything in sight and making quite a roster bid with his assured playing style.

--- Nate Clements made an exceptional play on the ball on a slant pattern, arriving at the same time as a pass to break it up and send the ball fluttering up in the air, where it was a lazy balloon to be grabbed as linebacker Parys Haralson circled underneath. But Haralson, showing stone hands, dropped the ball right as it was falling into his cradle.

--- Haralson made up for it on the very next play as Vernon Davis couldn't get a handle on Shaun Hill's hot-read pass and the ball glanced off him – and again popped up right in front of Haralson. This time, he made the grab and sped around the right side, turned the corner and took it into the end zone.

--- But then, later in team drills, Haralson dropped another opportunity for a sure interception. So much for his shot at the pick hat trick.

--- Some day, Andy Lee is going to hit an 80-yard punt. Really.

--- Rod Green is getting a lot of time with the top defensive unit at a position that usually is occupied by Tully Banta-Cain.

--- During individual line drills, Banta-Cain got locked up by Adam Snyder from the right side, just a few plays before Green blew by Snyder in the exact same drill.

--- But Banta-Cain made tackle Joe Toledo look invisible when he used a nifty move to charge past him a few minutes later. That's the Tully Banta-Cain the 49ers need to see a lot more of in 2008.


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