Ahmad Brooks

49ers training camp practice No. 1: Vernon returns, Stevie shines, Jimmie is the anti-A.J.

Vernon Davis SF 49ers

The day started with Jim Harbaugh’s first press conference inside Levi’s Stadium, in a university-like lecture hall.

“Welcome,” Harbaugh said after stepping up to the podium. “Nicer setup than we had before, huh?”

Sure, if you call a huge climate-controlled room with padded seats an upgrade over the media tent that airplanes passed over once every five minutes. Harbaugh spent most of the session focusing on the positive feelings surging through the team as they embark on his fourth NFL training camp as a head coach.

“I see it in their eyes. They’re cheerful and undefeated. I might be a little bit older but I look in the mirror and I see my eyes. They’re cheerful and undefeated. I don’t know if you can ever have a team that’s truly happy, as a football team or in training camp, especially. May not be around a happy team. But, our team is the least unhappy team I’ve ever been around,” said Harbaugh, who deflected a question about Alex Boone by vividly describing the team’s rebirth. 

It’s such a positive happening, that first day. Imagine you’re kind of in the comfort of the offseason, like being in the comfort of the womb. You got plenty to eat in there, it’s warm, very cozy. And then you’re born, into somewhat of the unknown. A lot of people looking at you, lot of faces looking at you, lot of excitement. It’s light, it’s bright, it’s noisy, it’s the crazy world of football. Again, it’s a real happening. Wish everyone could experience it.”

A lot of that happiness came from seeing Vernon Davis back at the facility yesterday. He didn’t really explain his absence during OTAs and minicamp in a group interview today, saying he did what was right in those moments and “vaguely remembered” what he said to all those media outlets during his odd and — at least based on what has transpired so far — unproductive holdout.

The whole thing, from the absences to today’s substance-free comments, was Vernon being Vernon. But the 49ers don’t care. He’s a huge threat in the passing game and can still lay a block or two, he’s in shape, and he hit the practice field with the rest of his healthy teammates today for the first time all offseason.

Practice Report – Day 1

My main first impression — other than what we saw from first round pick Jimmie Ward, which we’ll get to in a bit — is how much better this wide receiver group looks than the one that opened up camp a year ago. This is hardly breaking news, but it was hard to ignore how evenly the good plays were spread.

Anquan Boldin was his normal physical self. Michael Crabtree made a nice 20-yard grab in traffic for a significant gain in the middle of the field. Brandon Lloyd got behind everyone and was all alone at the 5-yard line, allowing he and Blaine Gabbert to connect for a 60-yard touchdown. Davis made a couple nice receptions, but Vance McDonald was even better (in particular, a 25-yard sideline grab when McDonald went up and over Antoine Bethea to make the catch). Even Kassim Osgood made a couple nice catches.

Then there was Stevie Johnson, the receiver who stood out above the rest (in my opinion, anyway — the coaches may see it differently). Johnson missed the previous offseason workouts due to a hamstring injury, but he’s in shape now. He ran precise routes and made several catches that showed his hand strength, including one back shoulder grab in one-on-ones against Perrish Cox.

Jimmie Ward 49ers

Two new guys who already have history

Ward knows all too well what Johnson can do.

“Actually, Stevie Johnson and I have been (going against each other), because we had to report a week earlier. So I noticed he’s got really quick feet. He’s got quick hands, his hands are really good. So you’ve just got to be patient with Stevie Johnson,” said Ward.

“I found out that the hard way, too. Because when we first reported, two times he beat me on this slant route when he got inside leverage. My coach told me, ‘See, he’s got years in this league.’ I’m just coming up, I’m just a rookie, so he’s going to help me get better at the end of the day. So I feel like I went out there and played him in one-on-ones pretty good.”

Johnson is known more for his antics than his production or his brain, but he’s far from a sloppy, careless player. Lloyd had a nice practice, but the previous chatter that he might usurp Johnson’s spot as the No. 3 receiver seemed absurd today.

Ward made a name for himself quickly today, which pretty much means he’s the anti-A.J. Jenkins. On the third play of practice, Ward intercepted a tipped Colin Kaepernick throw and … well, since I asked Ward to describe the play after practice, I might as well let him do the honors.

“I was in nickel. It was man coverage, and I had inside help. So I saw the linebacker take No. 2, so it was a double-slant. (Chris) Cook made a good breakup on the play, and the ball was tipped. Then I dove and caught it,” said Ward.

“If I keep making plays like that, I’m going to be seen. And hopefully I’ll get some playing time.”

The inside linebacker on the play was Chris Borland, who’s playing with Nick Moody on the second team defense. Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite are the ones, Shayne Skov and Blake Costanzo are playing with the third teamers.

Passing game

More of Kaepernick’s passes were caught than hit the ground, and there were quite a few drops mixed in. Carlos Hyde told me that he has great hands, but he let a couple bounce off them today. Kendall Hunter also dropped one, as did Chuck Jacobs, Quinton Patton and Asante Cleveland.

Josh Johnson had a near-interception that was dropped by safety D.J. Campbell, but Gabbert looked good. Besides the long touchdown to Lloyd, another memorable one was a 25-yard pass to Davis on a seam route. It’s hard to see how Gabbert won’t end up being an upgrade over Colt McCoy.

Running game

Frank Gore was active and talkative, so the idea of him taking a lesser role this season may not be a given. The rest of the carries were spread out among LaMichael James, Hunter, Hyde and Jewel Hampton (there weren’t many carries to be had today), and James caught a screen pass. My stance that James won’t start the year on the team has definitely softened some. It still wouldn’t surprise me if he were dealt before Week 1, but that’ll only be if someone really shines as a returner.

Marcus Lattimore is on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list. Harbaugh said he’s dealing with a combination of the hamstring injury that hindered his progress earlier in the offseason and the knee injury he’s been dealing with since college. Lattimore was working out in the weight room when practice started, and walked out onto the field during the session.

Other notables

— Tank Carradine got some reps today. It’s hard to tell exactly what he can really do without pads on, but he’s definitely a lot larger than the 273 pounds he was listed at last year.

— Chris Cook looks like a player. He’s as big as advertised, and there some instances where he completely blanketed receivers in 11-on-11, 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 work.

— Here was the starting offensive line (QB’s view): Staley – Iupati – Kilgore – Looney – J. Martin.

— Harbaugh had an interesting quote about Bruce Ellington and Marcus Martin, two rookies who started camp on the NFI list.

“It doesn’t seem to be anything real serious. Both involved rolling an ankle. Kind of a basketball-type roll of the ankle. Not playing basketball according to them. Again, you take a man at his word. They were doing football drills away from the team and I’m very optimistic that Bruce will be back, that he’ll be out the shortest period of time. He’ll be on the PUP the shortest amount of the time. And then maybe Marcus next. [LB] Aaron Lynch very soon as well. I’m talking days I think for those three in particular.”

— David Reed leaped over rookie corner Dontae Johnson to make a nice catch on a pass from McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

— Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks played catch for a while, then they spent several minutes working on a certain technique before individual drills. Smith looked to be the one teaching Brooks a way to defeat a block that starts with a hand to the chest by grabbing and twisting. Sounds like fun!

Trent Baalke looked on for a time, then Vic Fangio watched the pair discuss and try out the move again and again. Smith talked today about working on technique this offseason (full transcript of his interview), one that he says puts him in the best position to succeed he’s been in since starting his NFL career.

Ahmad Brooks Aldon Smith

Trent Baalke Ahmad Brooks Aldon Smith

Trent Baalke Aldon Smith Ahmad Brooks

Aldon Smith Ahmad Brooks Trent Baalke

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