His starting free safety is the only 49er who hasn't arrived for spring practice, but secondary coach Ed Donatell isn't sweating the absence. Not having Dashon Goldson simply means more repetitions for Goldson's backups, Donatell said Thursday, and frankly they could use the practice.
The safety spot in San Francisco went from deep and experienced in 2011 to promising but green this season. After starters Goldson and Donte Whitner, the top backup is C.J. Spillman, a special teams ace whose defensive role was limited to short-yardage plays last year. Other than Spillman, no other backup safety on the roster has played a defensive snap in an NFL game.
Contact was forbidden during the May practices, which meant a lot of work for the receivers and tight ends in the passing game. Conversely Donatell's defensive backs also have been getting plenty of practice. Donatell doubles those repetitions by having safety tandems stand behind the play when they are not one of the 11 on the field.
"They're taking mental reps and they're chatting," Donatell said. "... We want them to be a chatty group, and we want them to be an extension of our coordinator and our coaches."
Last year, the 49ers entered training camp with veterans Reggie Smith, Madieu Williams and Taylor Mays as part of the safety mix. Mays was traded to the Bengals later that summer while the team did not re-sign free agents Smith and Williams in March. Now Spillman, who was in on only 16 of 1014 defensive snaps last year, is the top backup.
He's fast, aggressive and is an excellent tackler who, like all young safeties, must master the mental side of the game. He said he's ready to put in the work. "I think the coaches - they saw how little I played (last year) and the potential I had and what I'm capable of doing," Spillman said. "For them to sit there and put a lot of confidence in me, that showed me that when it's time to go, I have to make sure I'm ready to go."
Donatell, who has been a defensive coordinator in Green Bay and Atlanta, also is coaching a pair of rookie safeties, sixth-round draft pick Trenton Robinson and undrafted Michael Thomas from Stanford. Thomas has had an edge on his fellow rookies so far because he played under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford in 2010.
Both rookies are small -- Robinson is only 5-9 - but quick and fluid. Donatell said they may be the prototypes of the future because they can keep up with wide receivers in a league that is increasingly using three and four of them at a time.
The 49ers promise to see plenty of those formations this year. As Donatell noted, the team will face the Top 5 most prolific passers from last season - Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Aaron Rogers and Matthew Stafford. That list may look daunting now, Donatell said. But he said the 49ers will be ready by the time the regular season rolls around.
"It's like having a baby," he said. "It takes about six to nine months to where we can say, yeah, we can take that on."
-- Matt Barrows