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Inside Report From Training Camp - By Bryan Hersh
Ok folks I wanted to get this up as soon as I got back from my trip, but I had a whole lot to write, a bunch of pictures I had to figure out how to get online, and of course somewhere in there I had to live my ‘regular’ life too. In any case, I will now recount my experiences along with my impressions from camp.
If you are a 49ers fan, and have not been to the 49ers headquarters, even just to see the trophy case in the lobby, you really should go. Driving into the facility and walking past the 49ers flag into the building on the first evening I truly was shivering with excitement. The first thing you see is the trophy case, where four of the five trophies were displayed (the fifth was being used by the cheerleaders and photo-ops). Along with the trophies the Super Bowl rings are as impressive. You really do not realize how big those things are until you see them up close. Commemorative balls, pictures, and plaques fill out the case in an awesome display of ‘49ersism’.
Despite the time change, and early morning I did not sleep much as I anticipated the next day. Arriving early at the facility my brother and I again stared at the display case, for literally half an hour, playing trivia and just having fun. As one walks in, directly to the left is the security desk (behind tinted glass) and the reception. On left wall, two double doors leading into the team meeting room, which I got to peak into as one staff member went inside to lay down the team pay checks. Beyond that room is the video viewing gallery. To the right of the double doors, and on the perpendicular wall beneath a red and gold stair case, is a single door leading to the teams weight room, locker room, medical facilities, showers and likely a few other rooms. While waiting there players were constantly walking right by me, and driving up in their decked out cars and trucks.
Finally, it was time to get our guest passes from the canopy in front of a gated entrance to the back of the facility. We did so, and proceeded out back, past a ‘lunch’ area (complete with bottled water and other drinks – which I am still not sure if they were free or you had to pay for them, but I do know they were included in the lunch I had later that day).
Out back there are three football fields, each about 50 yards. There are two buildings, headquarters of course (I learned from an applicant for an internship that Terry Donahue’s office over looks the field), and a building that holds supplies such as Gatorade. A third building at the far end of the field is used to store training equipment. The first of the three fields (see the image to the right for an overhead view of the facility, fields are in white, seating areas in yellow, the red line leads into the locker room, and is where to line up for autographs and to talk with the players) is used for special teams and players who are rehabbing and need room to run. Field 2 was used first for defense, then entire team drills (behind it is the sand pit which was not used while I was there), and field 1 was used primarily for offense, but also defensive line. A yellow line on the ground marked the perimeter of the fields and was the line we were not allowed to pass. We were however able to roam around between the fields in order to take it all in. On day two, team drills were held on field 1 instead of field 2.
Before I proceed with my evaluation of the actual team, players, coaches, etc. I want to address the issue of how many fans the facility can accommodate. I was told the current bleachers can accommodate up to 2000 individuals. The bleachers are quite low on both sides, perhaps 5 or 6 rows. These can certainly be expanded upwards if zoning laws (they are next to a power station) permit. There is quite a bit of room next to field two approaching the far endzone for more bleachers, and there is some ‘wasted space’ between sets of bleachers. There is less room by field 3 for more bleachers, but again, the current bleachers have wasted space between them, and there is room towards the front endzone. I think 4000 fans could be accommodated without expanding upwards, I think way more than could be accommodate if the team were to expand upwards. However, there is not much room between the ‘yellow line’ and the fence surrounding the perimeter of the facility. To accommodate this many fans, the 49ers would have to prohibit roaming around, or perhaps only allow VIP ticket holders to roam as such. More security would certainly be needed. Across the street from the office is a massive parking lot (there is a picture included in the download package) that could easily accommodate the needs of the team (though it may have to be rented out or something). Public transportation is abundant and readily available. Still there is another alternative. In the area marked by purple on the overhead shot of the area is at least 3 city owned soccer fields. Admittedly I did not examine this facility in great detail, so I cannot vouch for bleachers, but there is plenty of room for standing observation, particularly since the team typically practices on 50 yard fields. Hypothetically speaking, the team could rent these fields out every Friday or so to hold a public practice once a week. (I imagine the city would benefit from the influx of people too).
All that being said I can certainly see why the team has chosen to keep things small. The intimacy of the visit is simply awesome. The team did open the doors to youth groups and a 49ers booster club while I was there. Perhaps if the team made visits for the ‘common folk’ and not just the corporate sponsors and season ticket holders, more readily available, that could be the best of all solutions. Though under such circumstances, the team would have to be willing to accommodate nearly 2000 people on a daily basis, as opposed to just when they schedule it. There is of course the idea of letting in people on a first come first serve basis and charging a nominal fee too in order to support the practice.
All in all, more people could be accommodated to visit the team. There was however a certain “je ne sais quo” about having so few fans there, and having everything so close and hands on. I am certainly more satisfied than ever in my impression as to whether or not the team is doing everything it can to make the facility available to the public.
I will begin my evaluation with the special teams unit. Not surprisingly Brian Jennings continues to long snap on the mark and with consistency. There is no doubt in my mind that he is not the problem when a snap if fumbled etc. Todd Peterson has the leg up on field goals. While both he and Fikse were consistent in hitting them from what I saw, Peterson’s veteran experience will likely give him the edge. Both Andy’s did a fine job punting the ball in practice. Fifty plus yards with consistency, but wind really is not a factor. I really cannot understand why the team does not take these guys to the stick for practice to really determine who the better kicker is.
Wilson, Battle, Robertson, Hamilton and Williams all had there shots at returning kicks. I do not recall seeing a ball hit the ground with any of them fielding. Battle’s speed is obvious on the field, so is Hamilton’s. Robertson is much shiftier than the others but had a little trouble finding the ball. Wilson and Williams seemed to find the ball the quickest, but with all the apparent depth at this position the team may choose another player to return the ball as these two are quite high on the depth charts. Terry Jackson and Dwaine Carpenter both were quick down the field on special team’s defense.
In the defensive backfield there is no question that Tony Parrish is a man among boys. Not only does he cover the field well, and recognize offensive plays, but he also helps the coaches tell younger players what was wrong with their positioning and how to improve. Ronnie Heard has the leg up on the other safety position too. His knowledge of the defense, and his experience showed both in helping out in man coverage, and in his recognition. Dwaine Carpenter is faster, there is no doubt about that, but Ronnie just seems to be in position to make the play more often. Both Ronnie and Dwaine said that the competition is intense between them but that it helps bring out the best in each other. Mike Rumph looks like he will be able to maintain his improvement from last year. He is an unbelievable character to talk with. It is clear he is now comfortable with his position on the team and is among the few players who stays on the field for extra practice time at the end of the sessions. In press coverage he seemed to drop the contact about 4.5 yards from scrimmage which I can only guess is about as good as the technique can get. Ahmed Plummer said he was fully recovered from last year but is fighting through some nagging strains this summer. He looked pretty good in coverage too. He is also very friendly, and came right up to me to chat after practice – that was really cool.
As much press as Shawntae Spencer is getting I still think Jimmy Williams is the better corner right now. Williams has a good grasp of what is going on, on the field, and is quick. He is an awesome guy too. Really funny and out going. Spencer is still adjusting to the speed of the NFL, giving up short passes but closing quickly. I can see that he will be a player for this team. Keith Lewis has a tough fight to make this team, but he played a variety of positions and special teams. The depth at safety will make it hard for him, but the team should try and find a way to keep this guy around.
Defensive backs coach Ron Lynn was constantly tutoring the players during scrimmages and helping them recognize what the offense was doing. The line of communication between him and the veterans was clearly open. Of the remaining young defensive backs, Allan Amundson, Calvin Carlyle, Jselio Hanson, Mike Adams, Erik Totten, and Richard Yancy; it was Amundson who made the biggest impression on me. He seemed to get more play time than most of the other guys. Also a genuine guy to meet, who was willing to spend time with the fans after practice.
Jeff Ulbrich is a hard working linebacker. He jogs the sidelines in between rotations, and also goes over positioning with linebackers and defensive linemen. Saleem Rasheed was on the field, which in its self is a good thing, and seemed to be around the ball quite a bit. Derek Smith is easy to pick out, he helps the linebackers get into position and huddles up with them on the sidelines to go over things. Richard Siegler is bigger than I expected and around the ball whenever he gets the opportunity. There will be some bumps along the way, but I like what I have already seen. I never realized how fast Brandon Moore was until I saw him covering Hamilton. Sure Hamilton was faster, but Moore was in good enough position to force the quarterback to go another way with the ball. Jamie Winborn is an awesome guy. He spent time talking with me about Peterson. He told me how he is sure Peterson is getting all the information about the changes to the defense. He is fast, says he is healthy, and is ready to wreak havoc with Peterson. Other linebackers were Melvin Simmons, Greg Caorthers, Renauld Williams none of who really grabbed my eye and with so much depth at the position are pretty much long shots to make the team.
If there is one thing I noticed about the defensive line is that Bryant Young leads the group in every drill, and through the scrimmages. There is no doubt it is his line. He is also a very genuine and friendly guy despite the hoards of fans that try and talk to him. Anthony Adams was injured on the days I was at camp, but he was running hard on the first field, and looked like he was getting ready to comeback. Also very friendly to talk to, he said his injury seems to be healing nicely. You can’t miss Isaac Sopoaga who signed my jersey with “ALOHA”. The guy is just a mammoth. He was also recovering and working out on my visit, and I got to meet his cousin too, Bryan Save who was recently signed to the squad. Both these guys are a very friendly and I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am to know that we have a guy that big to play the middle. Josh Shaw saw a fair bit of play time and was really encouraged by the defensive line through the tackle dummies and some other drills. Michael Landry got lots of play time too and showed lots of hustle. John Engelberger and Andre Carter are certainly the guys at end. Andrew Williams played fine but he did not do anything that really stuck out to me. I will be surprised if he beats out Engelberger and that position continues to worry me. Andre Carter is another class act. He took the time to talk to some of us fans who stuck around and waited until literally all the players were off the field. He drops back into coverage with ease, and I really think he can excel in the 3-4 defense. I did not see Brandon Whiting even working on the field, so I cannot report on his status. Demetrious Maxie, Riddic parker, Josh Cooper and Chis Demaree were all pretty good in drills, but there is too much depth in front of them. Even rookie Christian Ferrara who seemed to get lots of encouragement from the coaching staff will have a tough time hanging on to the team. Defensive line coach Dan Quinn is very intense and pushes his squad through every drill.
My overall impression of the defense is that there has been some improvement, particularly in the defensive backfield. I think the linebackers with or without Peterson will manage, so long of course, as everyone can stay healthy. The defense did however has some trouble keeping up with the offense, and fell for screens far too often. It is a little tough to determine the pass rush because the quarterbacks are off limits to contact, but it did appear, at least with the firs stringers that getting through the offensive line was very difficult. Playing without Adams and Sopoaga may have contributed to this. Picking up the tight end in coverage was also a bit of a problem, both for the first and second stringers.
The offensive line first sting of players looked pretty good. Eric Heitmann, Kyle Kosier, Scott Gragg and Kwame (and yes he confirmed it, it is pronounced Kwaym not Kwawmee) Harris have the spots for now. Brock Gutierrez filled in for Jeremy Newberry quite well, not one dropped snap from what I can tell. He is also a really fun guy to talk with, and could not believe I knew he was a former Bengal. Justin Smiley is just an amazing person. We talked about how he was adjusting to the NFL, and he said the length of the college practices was harder, but the intensity, speed and strength in the NFL is not matched. He also said he has never sat on the bench or been happy sitting behind anyone in his life, so he is doing everything he possibly can to crack the starting line up. Dwayne Ledford was another cool guy to talk with, he was going all out in practice. Jerome Davis may have finally found a home on the offensive line, though he, along with Scott Rehberg, Norm Katnik, Rob Murphy, Matt Knutson, and Alsozo Cunningham will all have to fight really hard for a spot on the roster. Offensive line coach Gregg Smith is constantly on top of the players drilling them on technique and positioning.
Eric Johnson and Aaron Walker are a formidable duo at tight end. Both can catch (Johnson even with a cast on his hand), and both have improved their blocking. They seemed to have a good sense of finding the soft spot in defenses and knew when to release from their blocks to find those spots. James Jordan has the hands, he and Gabe Crecion likely lead the fight for a third tight end should the team sign one. Marcs Helfman and Kevin Ware are in the thick of things too, but there is no question who the top two are in this group.
Kevan Barlow is a beast. The guys is cut, has good vision, always picks the right hole, and thankfully did not fumble the whole time I was there. He is easy to pick out on the field, and you just know when he has the ball. Barlow however is not one to spend time with the fans. The lone time he did come over to sign autographs was for a youth group and a public relations staff actually had to go get him and bring him over. After signing for the youth group he waved to the rest of the fans waiting for him and took off into the locker room. In Barlow’s defense, the youth group did mob him (straight line? Yah right) it was actually disgusting to see the way these kids were pushing and shoving to get an autograph. I can understand how Barlow may have been fed up after dealing with these kids. Whoever the coordinator of that group was, needs to help get those kids in line, and some manners. Fred Beasley heads right to the ice buckets after practice. I was really disappointed that he did not come over to sign some autographs, and for some reason I was never quick enough to shout out his name either. I am not sure if Beasley just is not used to fanfare for a fullback, or simply is not much of an autograph signer. Either way, if there is one thing Beasley can do, it is block and play football. He dropped one pass, but other than that was solid. I really hope his injury is short lived.
Jamal Robertson can catch. He made some nice stretched out catches out of the backfield both in practice and while scrimmaging. He is far more shifty than Barlow and does a good job finding the appropriate whole. He is likely edging out Terry Jackson for the backup job, but Jackson looked good too. Both Robertson and Jackson told me they were fully healthy and ready to for the season. Both work well on special teams. This is probably one of the most under rated battles on the field. Jasen Isom is probably the second best pure fullback on the team, but the team may keep Jackson at full back in order to keep Barlow, Beasley, Jackson and Robertson. Beasley’s health may impact if the team carries Isem too. Matt Stanly, Maurice Hicks and Jason Wright did not turn heads but seemed to do everything they were asked of. Tim Lappano the running backs coach was particularly vocal during scrimmages calling out players for finding the right or the wrong hole.
The biggest problem the 49ers have at receiver is that every receiver seems to have good hands. Rashaun Woods was around for one practice before injuring his other hamstring. He runs tight routes, and catches the ball well. In between repetitions he sprints back and forth across the field. Woods works hard. Now if only he can get healthy. Brandon Lloyd made some nice catches, some one handed, some with two hands. He just makes it look easy. His routes are not as tight as Woods or Wilson but they are fairly precise. He, as we all know has unbelievable body control. In between repetitions Lloyd tries to work with the martial arts specialist on getting off the line and in strengthening his inner thighs to help him cut. Cederick Wilson really impressed me. I really hope the guy can play as well as he practices. He is certainly shorter than the others, but Wilson catches the ball well, gets open, and runs the best routes of anyone. In between repetitions he catches balls from a variety of positions. Wilson and Lloyd are really funny guys too, very outgoing and happy to chat with the fans. Arnaz Battle and Derrick Hamilton are both very fast. These guys run pretty good routes and have good hands. Curtis Conaway was in control of himself the whole time. Good routes, hands and body control. He looks like a reliable number three, but I am still having a hard time understanding why the team was not satisfied with the depth at receiver when they signed him. Kahil Hill, Adam Herzing and P.J. Fleck all stood out with nice catches, showing good concentration and hands while holding onto the ball. It is unfortunate the team will not be able to hold onto all these guys. Wendall Williams, Bosley Allen and Arland Bruce round out this group. None of them did anything jaw dropping, but they did not mess up either.
At last the quarterbacks. What I saw of Tim Rattay was quite limited. He was just running on the field during one practice. He had a bandage on his arm and is hopefully recovering. Ken Dorsey lead the team in most drills. He is fluid, has a nice release, puts the ball where it needs to be. There were some instances though when Dorsey held onto the ball a little longer than I thought he should have, if the defensive line was allowed to hit him, perhaps they would of gotten there. Dorsey has good vision, and likes finding his third or fourth read. This may get annoying if he does not start finding receivers. His play in the first exhibition game was somewhat indicative of what I saw. I really think he can be something in this league. His arm did not look limited in the slightest, I just think he has to be a little quicker in his adjustments to the defenses etc. Cody Pickett and Brandon Doman are in a heated battle. Doman will make more things happen with his feet, and has a more fluid throwing motion, but Pickett throws a tighter ball, has better mechanics with everything but a slightly awkward release. Both were trying to force a few passes rather than finding the next progressions likely trying to show the coaches they can make the tough toss. Doman was a bunch of fun to talk to, just all around good guy.
Ted Tollner and Dennis Erickson spent most of the time with the quarterbacks and running backs in the days I was there. The plays called during scrimmages sometimes caught the defense off guard. Willy Robinson the defensive coordinator is more vocal than Erickson or Tollner. I was actually a little surprised at how little three four defense I saw practiced in the scrimmages, but again this may have something to do with not having Sopoaga or Adams on the field. Look for reverses to Battle and Hamilton. The coaches are all working their squads tough. The players sprint between different spots on the field to rotate activity and are by no means ‘just going through the paces’. I really liked to see how hard the coaches are actually working these guys, I just hope that translates to discipline, few penalties, and proper position on the field.
It is hard not to have a positive tone after watching training camp. Not only was it the time of my life, but in practice these guys really do look good. I still have my worries for the season. I am still evaluating success not on wins and losses but on the achievements in the series of articles that I will continue writing. I think this team may surprise a few teams this year, but there is still a whole lot that I need proven to me on the field. I have to say that guys like Mike Rumph, Cederick Wilson, Jamie Williams, Brandon Lloyd, Jeremy Newberry, Bryant Young, Andre Carter, PJ Fleck, Kwame Harris, Scott Gragg, Brock Guiterrez, Dwaine Ledford, Eric Heitmann, Kyle Kosier, Jerome Davis, Terry Jackson, Jamal Roberston, Jamie Winborn, Ahmed Plummer, Tony Parrish, Ronnie Heard, Dwaine Carpenter, Anthony Adams, Isaac Sopoaga, Both Andys, and well most of the team really (I am sorry if I forgot to mention any of you), even the third and fourth string players, really appreciate the fans coming out, and are nice enough to come over and chat with us even after busting their rear ends off in practice. I can not even begin to explain how much I appreciated all these guys (even some which I no doubt forgot to mention) taking the time from their busy schedules to even spend thirty seconds with me.