'First impressions' was one of the themes of the opening practice of 49ers training camp today. And no one made a better one than first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward, who was coming back from a Jones' fracture (foot) this spring and didn't get on the field until recently.
Ward lined up with the second-team defense and, as planned, played the slot cornerback position. He turned in one of the interceptions of the day – Aldon Smith had the other – when he dove for a pass that was deflected by cornerback Chris Cook. The pass was thrown by Colin Kaepernick and intended for receiver Chuck Jacobs. Kaepernick also threw the pass Smith picked off. It was meant to be a dump-off to running back Kendall Hunter.
The best way to describe Ward: rangy. He's got long arms and is quick in and out of his breaks, which is ideal for the nickel spot. He's certainly not huge, and he looks more like a cornerback than a safety. The reason he's listed at that position is due to the way he hits, which wasn't allowed during Thursday's non-padded session. The team won't have a full-contact practice until Saturday.
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Other players who either were seldom-seen or not seen at all in the spring also were prominent today. That includes tight end Vernon Davis, who had a nice catch in the middle of the field, and Chris Culliver, who manned one of the starting cornerback spots opposite Tramaine Brock. Michael Crabtree also practiced more than he had in the spring and had a nice catch late in practice that he turned upfield for a big gain.
Culliver (knee) did not practice in full in the spring. Neither did newcomer receiver Stevie Johnson (hamstring), who had a couple of nice catches and who used his good size to create separation on a couple of plays. Kaepernick on Wednesday said that was one of the perks of having veteran receivers around – they make easy targets because they know how to get open.
Jonathan Martin, who was dealing with mononucleosis in the spring, lined up as the starting right tackle while Anthony Davis continues to come back from offseason shoulder surgery. Martin knocked down Patrick Willis on one play when the two accidently collided. Davis, Justin Smith (shoulder) and Ian Williams (ankle) worked out together on a side field.
Another theme from today was physicality. Although it wasn't a “live” or tackling practice, the players could be a bit more physical than they were in the spring. The receivers seemed to take advantage of this the most, especially Johnson and Anquan Boldin, who on one played shoved rookie cornerback Dante Johnson backward six yards before catching a short pass.
On the other side of the ball, Cook continues to look good, especially when he gets his hands on his opponent. At 6-2, 212, he not only is bigger than all of the cornerbacks on the team, he's bigger than all of the safeties as well. Playing right cornerback, he didn't allow smaller David Reed to get up to speed on a deep sideline pass and the throw fell incomplete 15 yards ahead of the receiver.
While Ward was the nickel cornerback with the No. 2 defense, Perrish Cox played the position with the first string and Darryl Morris with the third. Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite were the first-team inside linebackers; Chris Borland and Nick Moody were the No 2s; Shayne Skov and Blake Costanzo ran with the 3s. As expected, Joe Looney lined up at Alex Boone's usual right-guard spot with the first-team offense.
The final theme of the practice was dropped passes. There were a number of them with rookie running back Carlos Hyde, who mostly was with the third-team offense, dropping two easy catches. Hunter, tight end Asante Cleveland and Quinton Patton also had drops. So did safety D.J. Campbell (Cal), who flubbed a would-be interception on a pass from Josh Johnson that went over the head of Vance McDonald.
There were some nice plays on offense, however. McDonald went up high for a sideline catch over safety Antoine Bethea on a throw from Kaepernick. Crafty Brandon Lloyd also continues to make plays. He was on the receiving end of a 60-yard bomb from Blaine Gabbert after Lloyd slipped past third-string safeties Campbell and James McCray.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman (ACL, MCL) walked out to practice midway through the session. Jim Harbaugh said Bowman has resumed running and is looking forward to cutting. Harbaugh refused to put a timetable on Bowman's return today, but he has said in the past that midseason is the likeliest scenario. It's obvious that Bowman has not been slacking off in the weight room. His upper body resembles Lou Ferrigno's circa 1980. (Where are all my “The Incredible Hulk” fans?)
Early in the practice, coaching intern George Whitfield was seen spending time with rookie Kory Faulkner. Whitfield seemed to be concentrating on Faulkner's arm angle and on keeping the ball nice and high when he is dropping back. At the same time, quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were working with the other four quarterbacks, Kaepernick, Gabbert, Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
With Bruce Ellington on the sideline with an ankle injury, LaMichael James and Devon Wylie served as the team's punt returners. Both had their issues when the wind was at the punter's back, something to keep an eye on at the new stadium, which has an opening that will allow the northerly wind off the bay -- just a couple of miles away -- onto the playing field.
Tight end Garrett Celek (back) was working out on an exercise cycle when practice began. So were Marcus Lattimore (knee, hamstring), Ellington (ankle) and Marcus Martin (ankle.) Celek's injury perhaps opens the door for Derek Carrier to get into the hunt for the job of No. 3 tight end. Celek is an excellent blocker while Carrier is an ex wide receiver, who must prove to coaches he can move bodies in the running game.