Ask Jim Harbaugh about one of his players, and you get an avalanche of praise whether warranted or not. Ask Vic Fangio about a player, and you get a frank answer.
Which is why the 49ers’ defensive coordinator’s response about first-round pick Jimmie Ward on Friday 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 coachable. He’s ready to fight through the growing pains.”
Fangio and the 49ers got to see Ward’s physical skills Thursday when he dived for an interception of a tipped pass early in his first team-wide practice. But mental strength is perhaps more important to the nickel-cornerback position Ward is hoping to win this summer.
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“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 made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year.
Bethea said he has been impressed with Reid’s study habits and meticulous approach to the film room, and he sees that rubbing off on Ward.
“When I was a rookie, coaches always told me, ‘Look at the veteran guys. Copy what they do.’ ” 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.”
Hunter hurt – The second full practice of training camp was marked by an injury to running back Kendall Hunter. After catching a quick swing pass from Blaine Gabbert, Hunter tried to juke incoming defender Perrish Cox, but Hunter’s right knee locked up, and he went to the ground.
A few seconds later, Cox pulled the running back to his feet, but Hunter was on the ground again for several minutes while being tended to by trainers. He later slowly walked off the field with head trainer Jeff Ferguson but did so under his own power.
Hunter suffered an Achilles’ tear in November 2012, his second season with the 49ers, but made a complete recovery last season. He rushed for 358 yards (4.6 yards per carry). Hunter has been Frank Gore’s main backup since being taken in the fourth round in 2011. LaMichael James filled in when Hunter was hurt in 2012.
On Friday, the running back repetitions were spread evenly among Gore, James, rookie Carlos Hyde and Jewel Hampton. Marcus Lattimore (knee/hamstring) continued to work out on a side field.
Et cetera – Backup tight end Derek Carrier had a big day, catching at least three passes during 11-on-11 situations. Carrier, a wide receiver at tiny Beloit College, is competing for the No. 3 tight end spot. The incumbent, Garrett Celek, is out with a back injury.
Fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington (ankle) was taken off the physically unable to perform list but did not practice Friday. He likely will join the team soon.
The 49ers filled the 90th and final roster spot with Kyle Nelson, who competed at long snapper with the team in previous years. That job is Kevin McDermott’s, and Nelson (6-2, 240) is listed as a tight end-wide receiver. He warmed up with the tight ends.