Jim Harbaugh and his staff have had a shorter-than-usual time to evaluate their roster this offseason. With cut-down day looming, some of those personnel decisions got a little easier during the team's 20-17 win over the Chargers. Others became foggier.
First the easy. Harbaugh went ahead and announced what has been obvious all offseason but hasn't yet been enunciated: Alex Smith will start the season at quarterback. Smith took the vast majority of the first-team repetitions in training camp and started all four preseason games. He was 8 of 10 Thursday for 45 yards.
Meanwhile, backup Colin Kaepernick threw five interceptions during the preseason, including two more Thursday. He was 3 of 7 for 36 yards and had a 19.6 passer rating. However, he also bought extra time with his feet and ran for 20 yards, which is what attracted Harbaugh and the 49ers in the first place. The original plan was to bring Kaepernick along slowly in his rookie season, and that appears exactly what the 49ers will do.
Harbaugh didn't come out and say that rookie Kendall Hunter will enter the season as the No. 2 running back. But he came awfully close. Hunter was the first running back to take a carry after Frank Gore left the game, and he led the 49ers with 57 yards on 11 carries. He also returned a kick 51 yards, which impressed Harbaugh.
Hunter was one of the first players Harbaugh mentioned after the game. Asked about Hunter's role this season, Harbaugh said, "He's definitely playing well enough to be the No. 2 back." Earlier Harbaugh said, "I think he just gets better and better the more he's in this style of offense."
Other players made Harbaugh's decisions more difficult. "That's the way you want it," Harbaugh said. "There are a lot of people who really acquitted themselves well tonight that may not be on the team. I was pleased to see that. I think that showed a lot of fortitude on their part."
One of those players was backup inside linebacker Alex Joseph who was part of one of those classic preseason scenarios in which a player gets a last-second chance to make an impression and seizes the opportunity. That chance came at the expense of Keaton Kristick, who was carted off the field early in the second quarter with an undisclosed injury.
Joseph entered and made several solid tackles both on defense and special teams. Joseph also was credited with a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery. "He played very well," Harbaugh said. "He really played a very physical football game. Definitely makes it difficult. We've got to look at it."
Others who stood out:
OLB Aldon Smith: The rookie outside linebacker dominated the left side of the Chargers offensive line. Consider this stat line: 7 tackles (tied for game-high honors), 2 ½ sacks, two tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. "Saw him playing with some passion there, with some emotion," Harbaugh said. "The light's coming on more and more and (he's) making really good progress."
ILB NaVorro Bowman: Bowman didn't play for very long and he only had one tackle. But it was a big one. He blitzed, sacked Billy Volek, forced a fumble and then recovered the ball. If there was any trepidation about losing veteran Takeo Spikes to the Chargers in the offseason, Bowman has done a nice job of easing them in the preseason.
CB Chris Culliver: Yes, he allowed two big pass plays to the Chargers reserves. But he was in good position on both - they were very well-thrown passes -- and then came back with an interception in the end zone in the second half. Afterward, Culliver said he could tell the Chargers were targeting him early. That he had the last laugh was a good sign.
DE Demarcus Dobbs: Every game, Dobbs proves that his feats in the previous game were no fluke. He did a nice job collapsing the inside of the Chargers defensive line, teaming for a nice one-two punch with Aldon Smith. By now, Dobbs has accumulated so much good game film that he would be a very risky roster cut. The 49ers will be loaded on the defensive line in 2011.
WR Kyle Williams: Williams is the 49ers' smallest receiver but he again played like he was 225 pounds. Williams caught a short pass along the sideline, broke a tackle and then ran another 15 or so yards. Williams needed to prove his toughness this offseason, and he has done that.
RB Anthony Dixon: He left his dancing shoes back in the Bay Area. Dixon had a nice game, rushing 13 times for 45 yards. He averaged 3.5 yards a carry; Hunter's average was 5.2. If anything were to happen to Gore early in the season, Hunter might get the starting nod, but both he and Dixon would figure to play a lot.
Odds and Ends:
Harbaugh said that free safety Dashon Goldson was "working through something and didn't feel right." Madieu Williams started the game at free safety and played deep into the fourth quarter. ... Vernon Davis started the game but made a quick exit. .... Nate Lawrie filled the role of third tight end. That may have been because rookie Konrad Reuland wasn't at full strength. Reuland missed at least one practice during the week. ... Both Josh McCown and McLeod Bethel-Thompson made their preseason debuts. McCown was 4-4 for 51 yards. McBLT attempted one pass, which was incomplete. .... Fullback Moran Norris was in the game a lot in the first quarter. Rookie Bruce Miller is likely to make the team, but it doesn't appear as if he'll displace Norris. ... Look for the opening-day offensive line to look like this: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Chilo Rachal and RT Anthony Davis. Adam Snyder and Alex Boone also will be active on game days.
-- Matt Barrows