It didn’t come with a press release or a proclamation. In fact, because no one with authority on the subject has addressed the media since Thursday, when head coach Mike Singletary spoke at Cal State Monterey Bay, it hasn’t even been officially confirmed.
But to the naked eye, it looks a lot like rookie offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati have joined the starters.
Iupati stepped into first-team repetitions first, subbing for David Baas at left guard after the veteran suffered a mild concussion in the first padded practice of training camp, on Aug. 2. When Baas returned to action Saturday, he did not resume his prior duties. He began working with the second team while Iupati stayed at No. 1.
The day before, Davis quietly began taking the first-team reps at right tackle, where Adam Snyder had begun camp.
When the 49ers took Davis with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft, then followed up by grabbing Iupati at No. 17, you could practically hear the big clock ticking here at team headquarters. These guys are making too much money – a combined $26.8 million guaranteed – to sit the bench for long. The question was not whether they would be protecting Alex Smith in 2010, but how soon it would happen.
The answer may have come less than a week into camp, perhaps sooner than expected.
“It means a lot,” Davis said between practices Saturday. “My goal is to get better every day. And them giving me more reps with the first team, they think I’m getting better, too, and that’s what I’m striving for.”
Going into the regular season with two rookie starters on the offensive line is a little scary for an NFL team. Smith explained why on Saturday, noting that most blockers learn a couple protections and a couple adjustments to those protections in college. Here, it’s more like a dozen protections, with multiples adjustments to each.
“You can’t just know it on a white board,” Smith said. “You’ve got to know it in the half-second that it happens on the field. Mike Iupati, all of a sudden that linebacker runs up to the A-gap, you’ve got to know instantly whatever protection we’re in, what that means for you. Do you come down and block him or don’t you? … I know they’re getting a lot thrown at them, but it’s a good thing.”
Davis called the 49ers’ offensive playbook “humongous.” He demonstrated its thickness by putting about six inches between his thumb and forefinger. Asked about his book at Rutgers, Davis put the gap at two or three inches.
Certainly, the sooner the 49ers can settle on their starting front, the better. Asked in May when he’d like to know his five starters, offensive line coach Mike Solari said, “It can’t come soon enough.” Running back Frank Gore said he’d like to have it decided by the third exhibition game, so that he could begin to learn their tendencies and styles.
The big rookies are definitely making strides. They have been holding their own in the nutcracker drill, and receiving fewer lectures from Solari.
Davis showed his instincts on a pass play Friday, lunging headlong to catch a piece of blitzing safety Reggie Smith, thereby buying an extra split-second for Smith to deliver the ball to a receiver. “I got lucky,” Davis said. “Saw him out of the corner of my eye.”
But it showed the tackle’s growing comfort in the system. He may not have made that play during spring practices when his head was swimming with diagrams and assignments.
Davis has made strides off the field, too, burning off a little of the baby fat he brought from college through a mix of conditioning and diet. Davis said he has eliminated fried foods, and has replaced much of his red-meat intake with chicken and fish. The post-practice sprints that wiped him out at the Niners’ rookie minicamp in early May now have become routine.
“This is the best shape I’ve ever been,” Davis said. “I feel like I can run forever. It’s weird now, like, end of practice, coach says ‘conditioning.’ It’s like, don’t blink, you know what I’m saying? Just let’s go do it. It’s a good feeling.”
Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye also mentioned Davis’ improved fitness. Raye has been cautious in his praise of both rookies, but their raw potential is undeniable.
“They both have a physical presence about them,” Raye said. “They’re athletic with big bodies. I don’t see any reason why they won’t continue to ascend as they get more familiar with the language and the system of football that we’re playing.”
And the 49ers apparently see no reason why that ascent shouldn’t begin right now.