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  • MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ / Associated Press

    Tight end Vernon Davis practices on hurdles at the 49ers' training camp in Santa Clara. He has replaced weight-room bulk with lean muscle, with a focus on improving his ball-catching skills.

  • Vernon Davis

Now lean and limber, Davis embraces broader pass-catching role

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 - 8:24 am

SANTA CLARA – Vernon Davis insists he's hitting three-pointers again, and his wicked crossover dribble is back, too.

They disappeared for a stretch when Davis, a lithe prep basketball player in Washington, D.C. – who played against the likes of Kevin Durant and Patrick Ewing Jr. – concluded that football was his future and decided to get bigger.

A lot bigger.

He smashed weight-room records at the University of Maryland, and when he joined the 49ers in 2006, he weighed 255 pounds.

That bulk served him well as a blocker and in the practice-field scuffles that were a near-daily occurrence in training camp early in his 49ers career. But it impeded his ability to catch the ball. He was only consistent when he stopped and squared his shoulders to oncoming passes.

His hoops skills suffered as well.

"I kind of lost my handle a bit because I got too big," Davis said.

During the past four years, however, the 49ers tight end has reshaped himself, replacing bulk with lean muscle and dropping 10 pounds. He's quicker, more fluid and more limber. His basketball moves have returned and, more to the point, his receiving skills – especially when he's on the run – have flourished.

Tight ends coach Reggie Davis said Tuesday there were some weaknesses in Vernon Davis' game when he and the Jim Harbaugh regime were hired in 2011.

"There were some areas that we thought needed to be strengthened, like the over-the-shoulder catches," Reggie Davis said. "And Vernon's going to work hard to make his weaknesses stronger. So he has improved in that very much. And it's due to his hard work."

During Tuesday's practice, Davis had the catch of the day when he sprinted past both inside linebacker Patrick Willis – no slouch when it comes to speed – and free safety C.J. Spillman before making a finger-tip grab for a 50-yard touchdown. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw it far enough and at such an angle that Davis simply ran under the ball and away from the defenders.

No one was more impressed than Willis, who thought he had perfect position on the play.

"That's not even fair," Willis said after practice, a broad smile on his face. "If any other quarterback throws that ball, you know they're going to try to beat you to the middle of the hash. He threw a ball on the middle of the other side of the field. That was a heck of a throw and catch."

After Kaepernick supplanted Alex Smith at quarterback last season, Davis' receiving numbers dwindled. He caught six passes for 61 yards in the final six regular-season games and vented his frustration. After diligently developing a rapport with Smith, he said, he would have to start anew with Kaepernick.

That relationship began to take root in the playoffs when Davis caught 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in three games.

It's carried into training camp.

Davis has been the perfect match for Kaepernick's ever-improving long ball, and he has been by far the most consistent deep threat in an offense that, to this point, has lacked any firepower at wide receiver apart from veteran Anquan Boldin.

Davis this summer predominantly has worked out of his familiar tight end spot, where he can be used in both the passing game and as a run blocker. But he's also taken a few snaps from the slot position.

And with no young receivers stepping forward so far in training camp, there's a thought that the 49ers might move Davis outside at times this season.

After all, that's where other basketball-players-turned-tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham have found success in recent years.

Davis said he was willing to play wherever the 49ers' coaches see fit.

Willis, however, was wary of divulging secrets.

"If I told you that, I'd be giving you too much," he said when asked if Davis could be used as a wide receiver. "You'll just have to wait and see."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320. Follow him on Twitter @mattbarrows.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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