SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Tank Carradine's right knee finally looks and feels at full strength, which is welcome news after a San Francisco 49ers rookie season spent in rehabilitation.
"You see the flashes and the strength and the ability," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday. "(We) kind of have to pull him back because we're not in live situations here in practice. But (we're) very excited for where he's at right now."
It's also exciting news for a 49ers defensive line that's practicing this minicamp without Justin Smith while he rehabilitates an unknown injury.
The Carradine-Smith connection doesn't stop there. Nor does it merely trace to last year's draft when the 49ers drafted Carradine in the second round as Smith's potential successor.
Carradine was 11 when he would go to Cincinnati's community center and watch Smith's rookies practices with the Bengals.
"He stood out to me," Carradine recalled Wednesday between minicamp practices. "He was a first-round draft pick, and I can't remember the other defensive end they had, but I remember Justin because he's a loud one."
Now entering his 14th season, Smith isn't medically cleared to practice with the team because he's "working through something" that should be OK by training camp, Harbaugh said.
A year ago, it was Carradine who couldn't participate on the field, stunting his development and forcing him to play catch-up this offseason.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament prematurely ended Carradine's Florida State career, and while it also shelved him throughout 2013, a follow-up procedure in February removed scar tissue.
"Ever since that I feel like myself," Carradine said. "I was worried last year because I didn't feel like myself. My knee was strong but I didn't feel like myself. I didn't know if I'd ever be the same again."
He wasn't the only one, and that's why he slipped in the draft to the 49ers with the 40th overall pick.
"This is his first shot," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Carradine, who he compared to a rookie in terms of on-field experience. "Last year, I never felt he was there. It came to a point this offseason he got better, got the knee cleaned up and turned the corner."
Carradine indeed showed well in Wednesday's practice. On one play, he blew past right tackle Carter Bykowski to pressure Blaine Gabbert on a play whistled dead. Later, however, Carradine got pushed back well off the line by left tackle Joe Staley on a run play.
Guard Mike Iupati likes what he's seen in practice against Carradine, noting: "He'll be a good player, with his quickness and use of hands. He's explosive and shifty."
Carradine said last season allowed him to learn the 49ers' scheme and techniques. Of course, it also offered him the chance to study under his childhood idol, Smith.
"He's a big guy, a physical guy and plays every down like it's his last down," Carradine said. "You never know when it'll be your last play. You could be having an amazing season then all of a sudden there's a knee injury."
Carradine knows that first hand. His knee injury came Nov.25, 2012 in a loss to rival Florida.
--Prior to Eric Wright's retirement Tuesday, he was asked last week to move into the 49ers' nickel cornerback role and subsequently never showed up afterward, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. That role covering slot receivers remains a primary concern.
The 49ers, of course, used their first-round draft pick on Jimmie Ward to fill that position vacated by Carlos Rogers' offseason departure. But foot surgery in March has kept Ward off the practice field, including at this week's mandatory minicamp. Hence, Fangio isn't ready to pencil in Ward as the nickel cornerback for the Sept.7 season opener.
"He's going to certainly get every opportunity to, but he's missed all this time, he's learning, he's a rookie, etc.," Fangio said. "We'll all have to be a little patient with him."
Nickel duties have been handled in most practices by Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris.
Ward is expected to be participate fully once he reports with other rookies to training camp next month.
--Day 2 of the mandatory minicamp meant another day without tight end Vernon Davis and right guard Alex Boone, who are mired in contract disputes. Harbaugh reiterated his disappointment in the duo's absence but declined to elaborate on his remark Tuesday, that Davis and Boone weren't following the "49er Way."
"To answer the three, four, five follow-up questions, it gets to be badgering, it gets old," Harbaugh said. "I covered it thoroughly yesterday and I don't feel there's anything more to say about it at this time."
--Ahmad Brooks, Perrish Cox and Eric Reid later intercepted passes to highlight the defense's dominance in practice. Corey Lemonier showed nice burst off the left edge and Antoine Bethea tipped a pass blitzing from the slot.
--Davis' absence remains extremely noticeable. Vance McDonald had another mixed day with a couple drops. McDonald and Garrett Celek caught back-to-back passes from Colin Kaepernick in a hurry-up drill.
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