Any debate about whether Chris Culliver, the 49ers' third-round draft pick, is a cornerback or a safety must include Lorenzo Ward. After all, it was Ward, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at South Carolina, who switched Culliver from safety to cornerback before his senior season with the Gamecocks. Ward was adamant that when he watched Culliver in practice, he saw a cornerback, not a safety.
"I moved him to corner because I watched how he used his hands on receivers in practice," Ward said in a phone interview. "I felt like if he made a mistake, he could recover. This is a 4.3 guy - a legit 4.3 guy."
Indeed, some of the 2010 clips of Culliver that general manager Trent Baalke used in Thursday's film session show Culliver initially getting beat by a receiver but being able to catch up and make a play on the ball. Others showed that, like current 49ers cornerback Nate Clements, the big and physical Culliver (6-0, 200 pounds) can be an asset in the running game. He takes out Alabama tailback Mark Ingram on a couple of plays.
The biggest critique of Culliver is that he's been more athlete than football player at South Carolina. He started there as a receiver before being moved to safety his sophomore and junior seasons. He was voted a second-team All-SEC safety in 2009. All the while, he was an excellent kick returner and ranks third in SEC history with 2,476 kick return yards.
Both Ward and Baalke acknowledge that Culliver is a work in progress as a cornerback. But they said he improved in each of the seven games he played there as a senior. (He suffered a season-ending pectoral injury on Oct. 30). "Every game he got better at the position," Baalke said. "Every game he got more comfortable at the position."
Reinforcing that assertion, Ward said that prior to Culliver switching the cornerback, the Gamecocks would play field and boundary with their corners. That is, they lined up based on where the ball was spotted, which created a wide and short side of the field. With Culliver at cornerback, South Carolina matched him against the SEC's best receivers, including Alabama's Julio Jones on Oct. 9.
Jones had one of his better games of the season, catching eight passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. South Carolina, however, won the game 35-21. "He competed ok," Baalke said about Culliver's game against the very elite SEC receivers. "Did he shut them down? No. But did (LSU's) Patrick Peterson shut them down? No."
Back to Ward. He coached the Raiders defensive backs under Art Shell in 2006. One of his pupils was cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Ward was hesitant to compare the two because Culliver is so raw and because Asomugha has become such a masterful technician. But he said they were similar in one area.
"Nnamdi would work every single day," Ward said. "He was at Alameda working every day. That is Chris. Chris wants to be good. Chris is not there yet but he wants to be good. I'm trying to put a game plan together and he's calling me every day to watch film."
In the run up to the draft, Ward received phone calls from about 10 teams who wanted to talk about Culliver. Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz called. So did Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ward said he had conversations with another eight or so defensive backs coaches, including Arizona's, which took Peterson fifth overall. "I never, ever talked with anybody at the 49ers," Ward said.
-- Matt Barrows