Camp Tour 2012: Santa Clara
Miles Traveled to date: 11,281
(Stepping in to give Neil a night off from writing.) Reaching the 49ers’ Santa Clara camp requires some negotiating of the surrounding construction that will in two years result in their new stadium home. Cranes and trucks, steel beams and dust are the welcome party, but beyond that was a football headquarters that appeared—at least at cursory glance—to operate in a very regimented manner.
After meeting in the parking lot and stopping at the office to check in, we made our way to the media corral. As Peter ran off from there to catch a few words with Justin Smith, we dodged a bit of the pounding sun by meeting with beat writers in the air-conditioned media bungalow. A cafeteria lunch followed just before we made our way to the practice field for an early look at the 2012 49ers.
1) Committed to the Unconventional
One underlying theme presented while watching the full units work against each other: the offense was throwing everything it had out there. For an entire full-team portion of practice, each offensive group—be that the 1’s, the 2’s, or some mix of them and others—ran nothing but edge-of-the-playbook type of misdirection plays. Options from the shotgun, end-arounds coming under the QB, fakes off of those to designed boots and rolls… with each of the four QBs getting shots at running them, and the full stable of running backs and receivers in the mix. Adding to the odd-ball nature of the period were personnel combos that included defensive tackle Demarcus Dobbs at tight end and linebacker Michael Wilhoite at fullback.
Granted, an isolated bit of practice, but spending a full chunk of time on this stuff shows some dedication to it and that it has a home in the playbook… and would it really be that strange? Considering the 49ers’ use of defensive players on offense in 2011 (Isaac Sopoaga, for example, spent 51 snaps as part of the offense) and that one of their most memorable plays of the season was a certain third-down boot in the final minutes of a playoff game.
2) Good Randy
Randy Moss came to a team sorely in need of impact from a player at his position. The question, of course, was: which Moss will show up? From the looks of things on the field, the engaged, eager, and interested Moss is here now. He was seen jawing with the D-line group from 25 yards away, pulling aside the young QBs to talk pass placement depending on his position relative to coverage, and made at least two outstanding effort grabs on comeback routes while fighting through traffic—and on both promptly broke loose of grasping defenders to sprint toward the far end zone. It makes sense that he would be feeling good about his opportunity; latching on with a team that was just a hair from the title game (a team that could use his experience and savvy) while he surely desires an “I still got it” statement season.
3) Tremendous Twosome
The first group I saw today were the inside linebackers. There’s something about being that close to two incredible athletes who can play in unison the way Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman can—I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Fluid and powerful movement. Effortless communication. Complete control of the middle of the field. From bag drills, to 7-on-7, to full-team 1’s vs. 1’s, there was no disputing they were the central figures of the 49er defense. Nothing ground-breaking here for sure, but I had to take a moment to stress that as great as each may be on his own, acting in tandem they are truly something special.
● Best ball I saw today: Alex Smith rolling right behind sliding pocket, pausing then firing a strike to Ted Ginn on a comeback route at the sideline. Sharp pass, timed, located, and came in hot.
● Big Leonard Davis ran with the 2’s today and was at right guard every snap I saw him. Looks like he can still move and may end up as a legit option should Alex Boone prove not to be the answer.
● In the competition behind Alex Smith, Josh Johnson, to me, looked far and away the better QB than Colin Kaepernick today. Better feet, quicker and smoother motion, better velocity, on target just as often and fully able to make all of the throws. Small sample size considered, my money’s on him settling in behind Smith.
● I saw two forms of Brandon Jacobs today. One being a pads-down, high knees, snorting yardage-eater, and the other being the feeling-his-way big man looking for the easy path through the line. Was far more impressed with the former, shame it’s not an every-down persona.
● I got a quick chat in with Frank Gore at the end of practice and asked his thoughts on all of the new blood in the running back group. He shot a question back, “how do you think I looked out there today?” I told him I thought he looked quick and strong (I did, he was sharp today). He smiled and said: “Good. Tell everyone that.” Frank, this is me telling everyone.
● At one point in the day, the QB group was brought to the near sideline to face a large net with three cut-out openings. Each in turn, Kaepernick, Johnson, Tolzien, and Smith competed in carnival fashion to throw balls through the openings, tallying and timing each series of throws. As fun as it was to see them competing and hear them ribbing each other, my side discussion with punter Andy Lee stole the show… one comment about how it wouldn’t be good for the team if he stepped in and showed them up was particularly noteworthy.
● I couldn’t live with myself if I produced a PFF post about the 49ers and didn’t mention Justin Smith. Word from the writers was that in yesterday’s first full-pad practice he was a terror, literally tossing opposing linemen aside at will. Didn’t see that today, but it’s probably fair to think that doing it on Day 1 was more than enough to show he’s ready to pick up where he left off.
July 31 – Raiders (Napa)
August 1 – Dolphins (Davie)
August 2 – ?????
If you’ve got questions for Neil to take along to any of his upcoming camp visits, follow him on Twitter (@PFF_Neil) and let him know.