49ers’ Jimmie Ward in Line for Starting Role

August 1, 2016 GMT

SANTA CLARA -- Jimmie Ward’s versatility and playmaking ability should make him an every-down defender this season for the youth-laden 49ers. One play reinforced that notion Tuesday.

Ward, the 49ers’ top draft pick in 2014, intercepted a pass by Blaine Gabbert and returned it for a would-be touchdown at training camp.

“He’s our starting corner, right now, opposite Tramaine Brock, and we are still training (Ward) inside at nickel,” new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said. “But, again, our depth chart right now is written in sand.”

As was the case in the offseason program, Ward is being transitioned into an outside cornerback. His interception came from his familiar role covering the slot receiver, which in this case was Bruce Ellington in a 7-on-7 drill.

“I got beat on that route (Sunday),” Ward said. “Coach told me what to do and I made the correction.”

Ward, a diligent student of the game who constantly watches film, also has sought advice from Brock.

“He just got some tips from me so he can go out there and make plays,” Brock said. “Jimmie can make plays. He’s a good athlete.”

Ward played safety at Northern Illinois, but since the 49ers drafted him in the first round two years ago, he has primarily been assigned to cover the slot receiver, which he did really well last season after missing half his rookie year with a foot fracture.

Ward said his foot is great, as is his confidence, which wavered not long ago.

“In the spring they said I was getting frustrated but they stuck with me,” Ward said. “Everybody inside the 49ers facility stuck by my side.”

O’Neil said the 49ers won’t assign cornerbacks one side of the field or the other, and that their roles will be game-plan specific. He wants his starting cornerbacks to stay outside rather than rotate into the slot, noting that the mentality is too different.

If Ward indeed locks down a starting cornerback role, the leading candidates for the nickel-back duties are Chris Davis, Keith Reaser and rookie Will Redmond. Eric Reid, a fourth-year starting free safety, is also seeing time covering slot receivers.

Gabbert completed a 40-yard, touchdown strike to Jerome Simpson down the left sideline to highlight the 49ers’ offensive showing Monday.

In 11-on-11 action, Gabbert completed 6 of 10 passes, starting with the touchdown throw. Colin Kaepernick completed 8 of 10 passes, most of which were short-yardage attempts.

Overall through two practices, both quarterbacks are keeping the high-tempo offense on its manic schedule, so both are probably doing an admirable job in coach Chip Kelly’s eyes.

Among those watching the 49ers quarterback competition play out was Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and noted NFL fan. Rice visited before practice for several minutes with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke and Kelly, as well as team president Al Guido, owner Jed York and several of Kelly’s assistants.

A Stanford professor, Rice was greeted on the practice field by coaching-staff analyst Dana Bible, a former Stanford assistant. Baalke called it an honor to meet her and that he shied away from talking politics -- or about the 49ers’ quarterback competition.

Simpson’s touchdown catch served as a promising sign that his erratic, eight-year career could be back on track.

“I feel like the iron is hot right now and it’s my time to strike,” Simpson said. “I come every day with juice and show coaches I can play for them. I’m a guy that’s going to make big plays for us.”

Defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead lined up together on the first-team unit for the first time, bracketing Quinton Dial at nose tackle. Armstead twice disrupted running back Carlos Hyde in the backfield.

Kelly told KNBR he is not interested in adding free agent Nick Foles to compete at quarterback. Foles excelled for Kelly’s Eagles in 2013 and was traded last year to the Rams, who released him last week.

Tuesday will deliver the first padded practice, an expected two-hour jam session, if you will. “I can’t wait to kick some (butt),” Dial said.

The first scuffle of camp -- just pushing and shoving, no punches connecting -- came between linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong and tight end Busta Anderson. For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman’s Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers . Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman .