If everything the 49ers do in training camp is preparation for the Sept. 12 opener in Seattle, then the team couldn't have picked a better practice setting than today's venue. Team buses started arriving at California State University Monterey Bay at 10 a.m. under a misty, gray sky with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. That didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits. The team trotted onto the school's soccer fields a half hour later and had a rousing - in unison - team stretch that was reminiscent of an Army platoon mustering for the day. Why not? The old Fort Ord barracks were across the street.
Mike Singletary said the team settled on the venue, in Seaside, Ca., about a month and a half ago. Coaches waited until Wednesday, however, to inform the players. "It's like an away game," Singletary said. "Anytime you can get away, it just makes guys think differently. Because you're out of your comfort zone, you have to adjust." Singletary cancelled the team's afternoon practice, but was mysterioso about what he had planned for his players instead.
As far as the on-field action, the defense spent the day practicing one of its nickel packages. This one employs three safeties - Reggie Smith was No. 3 - and two linemen, who usually are Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. They rush the quarterback along with specialists Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks. Reggie Smith has been filling in with the first-string defense when veteran Michael Lewis has been given a break and it appears he's preparing for the role Mark Roman had last year.
Singletary seemed to suggest that Smith's development this year centers on his confidence: "It's going to the next level, just maturing," he said of Smith. "You know, he's been a little banged up the last couple of years and he's been kind of quiet. And I think sometimes guys take a little longer to mature and step into it. And plus we had Mark Roman and Michael Lewis, veterans. Sometimes it's hard for guys to really see themselves as getting some playing time, so they kind of subconsciously think, 'well, it's not going to happen this year.'
The defense almost seemed to be toying with the offense during the first 11-on-11 session today. Then, Alex Smith went to the ol' reliable - the down-the-middle toss to Vernon Davis. The tight end had a few steps on inside linebacker Matt Wilhelm and Smith placed the ball perfectly. It's a throw he's gotten comfortable making, and the play - it would have been a touchdown - seemed to perk up the offense. The "11-85 connection" struck again in 7-on-7 drills, when Smith found Davis in front of rookie NaVorro Bowman.
Here is the play-by-play of the second 11-on-11 session:
1. Running play to Frank Gore. After the defense beat up on the offense in the first 11-on-11 session, this play leaves two defenders, McDonald and Brooks, on the ground. Mike Iupati pulled to put Brooks on the grass.
2. Smith throws a short pass to Ted Ginn.
3. Another Frank Gore run. This time he runs right into Justin Smith's arms. The defensive end lifts Gore, spins him around and sets him gently on his feet. Play over.
4. Smith fires a pass to the far sideline for Dominique Zeigler, who turns upfield for what would have been a big gain.
5. Inside handoff to Glen Coffee
6. Receiver screen to Ginn, a play the offense had been practicing all morning. Joe Staley and Iupati hustle to get out in front of the play.
7. A shallow crossing pattern from Alex Smith to Michael Crabtree. The receiver takes a shove from rookie cornerback Phillip Adams and falls to the grass at the sideline.
8. Gore sweeps to the right side. Inside linebacker Matt Wilhelm does a good job snuffing out the play.
Outside linebacker Travis LaBoy left practice early, and Singletary said LaBoy would be checked out for a possible concussion. If that's the case, then the 49ers will have had three concussed players since Monday. David Baas and Delanie Walker are the other two. Neither practiced today. Defensive end Derek Walker fell and got caught in a tangle of bodies in the nutcracker drill. He came up limping on a sore knee, but toughed it out the rest of practice.
Because there was only one practice today, no one was afforded a "veteran courtesy." However, several 49ers were held out. They were Baas, Walker, center Eric Heitmann (stinger) and guard Chris Patrick (sprained shoulder). Linebacker Scott McKillop did not make the trip after suffering a knee sprain yesterday afternoon and being carted away. He has an MRI scheduled today, which should show the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, Chilo Rachal (dehydration) was back in the lineup at right guard.
There were no punt returns today, but the team did practice kickoff returns. The four candidates for that job are Ginn, Kyle Williams, LeRoy Vann and Dominique Zeigler. It would seem that Zeigler has to make some kind of special-teams splash to make the 53-man roster this year.
-- Matt Barrows