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Saturday, August 7, 2010
Camp Confidential: San Francisco 49ers

By Mike Sando

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers call it taking ownership.

Coach Mike Singletary sets aside a portion of practice for players to step forward and coaches to step back. Quarterback Alex Smith gets to call whichever offensive play he thinks will work for the situation. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis makes the call on defense.

"Good ownership, Alex," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis hollered as he ran back upfield after snatching Smith's 40-yard pass in the back of the end zone Friday. "I like that ownership. You're part of the team now, baby!"

Smith isn't nearly as outspoken, but in his own way, he made sure Willis, the 49ers' Pro Bowl linebacker, knew which side's play call prevailed. And if anyone remained unsure, all he had to do was consult Davis, one of the brashest and most freakishly athletic players anywhere. Davis, and his mouth, always seem to be open.

"Vernon brings an attitude now that we're going to out there and we're going to make plays and we're going to shove it down your throat," Smith said. "And when we make plays, you're going to hear about it. We're going to be hooting and hollering. I'm not going to do that, but those perimeter guys are. You love that attitude."

Even the 49ers' defensive players love it. They know how hard Davis works and, besides, this team is tight. For all the offensive coaching changes the 49ers have endured -- five coordinators since Smith entered the NFL in 2005 -- the team's core players have been together for at least three seasons in most cases.

All the key components are back from a team that finished 8-8 last season. An improving offense and questions elsewhere in the division give the 49ers their clearest shot at a playoff berth since the days of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens. Just ask Davis.

"You have Ted Ginn outside with a lot of speed and you have to keep an eye on him," Davis said. "Then you have [Michael] Crabtree, who is just like a cat in the night. I mean, he just runs his routes so well. Then you have to worry about Josh Morgan. When all of us are on the field and Frank Gore, I mean, they can't stop us."

THREE HOT ISSUES

Anthony Davis
The 49ers need rookie tackle Anthony Davis to make a quick transition to the NFL.
1. How will Frank Gore's role evolve? Gore rushed for 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so it's not like he wasn't a big part of the offense. Still, perceptions linger that Gore and Smith weren't particularly compatible. Smith seemed most comfortable operating from looser formations. Gore has always preferred running behind a fullback out of a more traditional offense. To answer the question, though, check out Gore's stats over the final four games of the 2009 season. He averaged 23 carries for 113 yards in those games. Expect the 49ers to continue feeding Gore as long as the running back holds up physically. That was where the offense was headed in December.

2. What impact will Ted Ginn Jr. have on the offense? Forget about what Ginn accomplished -- or failed to accomplish -- with the Miami Dolphins. In Miami, Ginn was measured against expectations for a first-round draft choice. The expectations aren't the same in San Francisco, where the 49ers already have established offensive stars (Davis and Gore) and one of the better up-and-coming wideouts in second-year pro Crabtree. All Ginn has to do for the 49ers is use his speed to attract safety help against the deep ball. Ginn has been able to do that in practice. His speed is obvious, and it should lead to more favorable coverages for the other receiving targets, notably Davis and Crabtree.

Frank Gore
Expect Frank Gore to remain the centerpiece of San Francisco's offense.
3. Will the offensive line improve? The three hottest questions in 49ers camp concern the offense. That is fitting for a team whose defense has held up its end in recent seasons. While the 49ers are excited about adding first-round linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, both players face learning curves as they transition to the NFL. The 49ers play three of their first four games on the road, where communication can be difficult and experience helps a great deal. Iupati and Davis will upgrade this line over the course of the season, but the line could face some issues early on.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Nate Clements. The veteran cornerback seems like his old self: confident, outspoken, having fun. He's been bantering with Davis and seems to have moved past a difficult 2009 season. Clements spent his offseason training in Arizona, with an emphasis on fundamentals. He looks good so far.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' franchise player remains unsigned. It's a given that Franklin will report before the regular season. Singletary has confidence Franklin will report in good condition, so there won't be any Albert Haynesworth-style conditioning issues. But with the team setting aside $7 million for Franklin this season, it would be nice to have him in camp.

OBSERVATION DECK