Ask Jim Harbaugh about one of his players and you get an avalanche of praise whether the player warrants it or not. Ask Vic Fangio about a player and you get a frank answer.
Which is why the 49ers defensive coordinator's response about Jimmie Ward today was worth noting.
“I like him mentally,” Fangio said. “I think he's confident without being cocky or arrogant. I think he knows he's got a daunting task ahead of him, that he was put behind the 8-ball with no offseason work. I think he's ready to work. I think he's very coach-able. He's ready to fight through the growing pains. I think everything about him mentally and emotionally will end up being on the plus side of his ledger.”
Fangio and the 49ers got to see Ward's physical skills Thursday when he dove for an interception of a tipped pass early in his first team-wide practice. But mental ability is perhaps more important to the position Ward is taking on this summer.
The nickel cornerback position is as much about film study, experience and knowing where your teammates are at all times as it is quickness and tackling. Indeed, Fangio has preferred smart guys – Carlos Rogers, Michael Thomas, for example – at the spot in the past.
“That nickel position, as you can tell over the years in the NFL, has become one of the most critical positions on the defense,” said veteran safety Antoine Bethea. “It's experience, it's studying film, it's knowing where your help is. Once he gets more playing time on the field, once he understands the defense more, he'll be much better.”
Ward certainly has good role models.
Bethea has proven to be one of the sharpest players in the league and was a quick learner as a rookie eight years ago. The other starter at safety, Eric Reid, started every game and was a Pro Bowler as a rookie last year.
Bethea said he's been impressed with Reid's study habits and his meticulous approach to the film room, and he sees that approach rubbing off on Ward and other young defensive backs.
“When I was a rookie, coaches always told me, 'Look at the veteran guys. Copy what they do. Whatever they do, you should be doing as well.'” Bethea said. “When (Ward) sees Eric Reid, who was a rookie last year, made the Pro Bowl, when he sees him writing in his notebook, asking coaches questions, of course that's going to pay off for him.”
Of course, not all of the feedback from Fangio on Ward was rosy. The rookie missed all of the spring practices due to a foot injury and was limited to studying and taking “mental reps” while his teammates practiced. Has Ward been able to take what he's learned from the classroom to the field?
“At times,” Fangio said. “And at times he didn't.