49ers hoping for big things from rookie linemen
SANTA CLARA – The youngest member of the San Francisco 49ers grew up quickly this summer.
“I came into training camp when I was about 20,” Anthony Davis said Monday. “Now I’m about 25.”
Like the team around him, Davis is anxious to see if that maturity carries over to the regular season. The rookie will get the chance Sunday when he makes his starting debut at right tackle as the 49ers open the season at Seattle.
Davis, the No. 11 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, is one of two first-round draft picks who earned starting jobs this summer along San Francisco’s offensive line, the team’s biggest problem area in recent seasons.
Mike Iupati, the No. 17 overall selection in the draft, will start across the line from Davis at left guard. The 49ers are counting on both youngsters to upgrade an offense that hasn’t finished higher than 23rd in the NFL rankings since 2003.
Davis, who doesn’t turn 21 until October, will become one of the youngest players in team history to start a season opener. Iupati, 23, also made a strong enough impression this summer for the 49ers to believe he’s ready to handle a starting role in the NFL trenches.
“They better be,” coach Mike Singletary said. “They’ve done a great job and have continued to work their tails off. Both young men are impressive in their own right and have continued to make great strides. I’m really excited we have both of them. But now is not the time to ask if they’re ready. It’s on now, so they better be.”
The 49ers will learn quickly just how far along the young linemen have come. They open at Seattle’s Qwest Field, notoriously one of the NFL’s noisiest stadiums and toughest venues for opposing teams.
Since 2005, Seahawks opponents have been flagged an NFL-high 95 false-start penalties. The 49ers have regularly struggled with the conditions in Seattle, including last season when a 20-17 loss to the Seahawks in December crippled San Francisco’s playoff hopes.
“It’s a very loud place,” center David Baas said. “But we still have to go out there and execute. We still have to go out there and dominate. In order for us to do that, we all have to be working together. It doesn’t matter if they’re a rookie or not.”
With star talent at several offensive skill positions, the 49ers have placed a lot of emphasis this year on upgrading their offensive line, bringing in new positional coaches Mike Solari and Ray Brown to oversee the unit and then spending high draft picks on Davis and Iupati.
The unit took a blow in early August when center Eric Heitmann, the team’s most consistent lineman, broke his left leg in practice. But Baas has made a smooth transition to the position after starting all 16 games last year at left guard.
Baas was available for duty at center because he lost his starting job at guard to Iupati during the first week of training camp. Iupati exhibited great power in the trenches during the preseason, giving San Francisco’s line a more formidable look entering the season.
“Now it’s for real,” Iupati said. “I know (opponents) will be coming hard and they’ll try to take advantage of me. But the bond we’ve developed as offensive linemen is great. These guys go the extra mile to be successful, so I have to go the extra mile to be successful now.”
The rebuilt line will be a major factor in San Francisco’s success this season. The 49ers are a consensus favorite to win their first NFC West title since 2002, but there still are plenty of questions facing a team has gone seven years without a winning season.
Those questions begin with the two rookies in the middle of it all up front.
“The hay is in the barn and the work has been put in,” Singletary said. “I think we’re mature enough to do the things we have to do. The biggest question mark we have as a team, with the talent we have, are we ready to go and play to the level we’re capable of playing. That’s a good question, and I believe the answer is yes.”
NOTES: Singletary said the 49ers have not yet settled on a punt returner, although rookie seventh-round draft pick Phillip Adams said on Monday that he’d be handling that role against Seattle. Adams also will be a gunner on the team’s punt-return unit. Rookie sixth-rounder Kyle Williams, the team’s top option at punt returner, hasn’t practiced since spraining a big toe on Aug. 15. Williams was cleared to run Monday, but Singletary said he will “probably not” practice this week. LB Ahmad Brooks, who suffered a lacerated kidney during practice Aug. 6, said he’s “90 percent healthy” and expects to be cleared for a return to practice next week and play in the team’s Sept. 20 home opener against New Orleans. With veteran CB William James likely out until the middle of this month with an ankle injury, the 49ers kept two rookie cornerbacks – Adams and undrafted free agent Tramaine Brock – on their final roster, which features 11 defensive backs.