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49ers training camp recap: Day 4 first hand observations

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News and notes from the second padded practice of the offseason.

Thearon W. Henderson

It was an interesting day at 49ers headquarters on Sunday. Unfortunately, the biggest news featured injury once again as LaMichael James suffered a dislocated elbow. But the show goes on and there was plenty happening on the field.

Last week, I spoke of mood being crucial in camp, in response to a Matt Barrow's article suggesting that camp could have a more business-like approach and vibe surrounding it, differing from the more jovial atmosphere of 2011 and 2012.

So what was the mood like?

The best way I can summarize it is this: "business as usual." The players are out there enjoying themselves, but it's very focused, very smooth, and definitely a "we've been here before" mentality. Even with the abundance of young players competing for roles, there's a very veteran feel to it all. Here were my key takeaways and observations from Sunday's session:

Cornerbacks

There wasn't much playing time for Tramaine Brock or Chris Culliver today. Harbaugh did, however, praise both players in the presser before practice. Chris Cook, Perrish Cox, and Dontae Johnson saw a lot of the action today, with Jimmie Ward getting into the mix as well. Johnson made some plays, including broken up passes against Stevie Johnson and Anquan Boldin in the end zone, but he surrendered several receptions during the day as well.

Receivers/Tight Ends

First and foremost, Michael Crabtree looks fantastic. Early on in the session, he got the best of Tramaine Brock during a physical battle, successfully fending him off for a comeback reception near the sideline. He made several nice receptions during practice and generally jumped out as very strong and sharp.

Anquan Boldin was vintage Anquan Boldin. The veteran wide receiver routinely made catches in tight windows with coverage blanketing him. It was fun to see him going up against rookie Dontae Johnson.

Vance McDonald was someone who I was paying specific attention to. In the press conference before the game, I asked Harbaugh about McDonald and what kind of change he's seen from year one to year two. He maintained that expectations are high and that McDonald has made great strides.

Those strides were evident in practice. McDonald's hands, which were an issue last season, seem much improved. He had a handful of good-looking receptions, two of which resulted in touchdowns during red zone drills. His most impressive catch was on a high pass from backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, which he snared out of the air in the middle of the field. McDonald's potential emergence would give the 49ers a formidable one-two punch at the TE position along with Vernon Davis.

Offensive Line

Newcomer Jonathan Martin and 3rd-year guard Joe Looney manned the right side of the line during a good portion of practice. The line had its moments but the defense, notably Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, and Corey Lemonier could be seen muscling into the backfield. Daniel Kilgore played well at center and appeared to be snapping the ball cleanly throughout the session.

Running Backs

With Hunter and LaMichael James out of the picture, there was plenty to be seen from Jewel Hampton and Carlos Hyde. Both made some great plays on Sunday. Hampton had a few catches out of the backfield, including a difficult snag on a low pass. Carlos Hyde barreled through the middle of the line on two separate occasions for solid gains. He did, however, have a notable drop when a pass from Gabbert bounced off his upper chest.

Rookie Radar: Chris Borland

Borland really jumped out to me during one-on-one drills. His feet were extremely fast as he weaved in and out of padded obstacles laterally. The 3rd round pick out of Wisconsin is battling Michael Wilhoite for time at the inside linebacker position while NaVorro Bowman continues to rehab. While Wilhoite has to be the favorite to start, Borland showed off some great athleticism and should be fun to watch throughout camp.

Play of the Day

Patrick Willis had an impressive kickoff return for a touchdown, streaking down the left sideline to the cheers of his teammates during special teams action.

Edit: For those concerned about Willis fielding a kickoff, this was not a planned or regular occurrence. It was all in good fun and put Willis at no more risk of injury than he would be on any other play. No one was looking to take out the 49ers' perennial All-Pro.

Final Note

I passed NaVorro Bowman on my way to the practice field as he was lifting in the weight room right nearby. While it was a brief moment, and it could have just been that I misread Bowman's docile demeanor, I came away with a palpable sense of his disappointment and melancholy. You could see it on his face as he looked over to his teammates beginning to warm up. It's certainly understandable considering the kind of competitor and person Bowman is but it was an instance in which the human condition element of the game shone through. Bowman did seem in much better spirits hanging around with teammates on the sideline later in practice.

Hopefully he continues a successful recovery and is back to menacing the opposition by midseason.