SANTA CLARA Not only will Michael Crabtree play in his first NFL preseason game tonight, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said the fourth-year wide receiver will start against the Minnesota Vikings.
Crabtree's participation was in doubt after he injured his calf on the first day of training camp. But he returned to practice earlier this week and has been ramping up his role over the past three days.
Another mild surprise is that Ted Ginn, not Randy Moss, will start opposite Crabtree. Moss has stolen the headlines since he arrived for spring practices in late April, but Harbaugh said that Ginn has had a strong training camp.
"Really pleased with Ted," Harbaugh said Thursday. "He's catching the ball, he's blocking, he's playing all the positions the X, the Z, the slot. He's doing it all. He's running good, getting in and out of his cuts."
Said quarterback Alex Smith of Ginn: "He's made a lot of plays with the ball in the air. He's made a lot of tough catches."
Harbaugh has previously said that there's a five-way tie to be the 49ers' No. 1 receiver between Crabtree, Moss, Ginn, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. He said all of them, including Moss, would play against the Vikings.
He also said Williams, who had two crucial miscues on punt returns the last time the 49ers were in Candlestick Park, would handle punt returns tonight.
"Most definitely," Harbaugh said. Williams is Ginn's backup as the punt returner.
Crabtree missed the preseason his rookie year because of a contract dispute that lasted well into the regular season. He missed 2010 exhibition games after suffering a neck injury early in training camp. He was returning from a broken foot last year. He said Tuesday that he thought he'd play tonight but noted that the starters probably won't be in the game for long.
Familiar face Tonight's game will reunite Harbaugh with Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 1,871 yards and had 28 rushing touchdowns for Harbaugh at Stanford in 2009 and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
With Adrian Peterson (knee) on the physically unable to perform list, Gerhart and third-string runner Lex Hilliard figure to see the most action against a 49ers run defense that ranked first in the league overall last season.
Roster move The 49ers released cornerback Curtis Holcomb, a seventh-round pick last year. Holcomb sat out the 2011 season because of an Achilles' tear. He returned to practice from a hamstring injury Wednesday.