One of the biggest questions facing the 49ers going into training camp was at cornerback.
Tramaine Brock, coming off a breakout season, was set at one spot, and coaches hoped rookie Jimmie Ward could win the job covering slot receivers in the nickel.
But the starting corner job opposite Brock? That was up in the air.
After just a few days of camp, however, it appears Chris Culliver is on track to win the job.
Culliver, who played in the nickel during the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, missed all of last season with a torn ACL. But over the first few days of camp, Culliver picked right up where he left off.
He’s got plenty of experience, having played every game in 2011 and 2012 before his injury, and now has a strong knee again.
Though he missed Tuesday practice with a sore leg – as did Brock – Culliver appears poised to play a key defensive role in 2014.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh says Brock and Culliver are playing at a higher level than Chris Cook, Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson, Darryl Morris and Kenneth Acker.
“I was really pleased with the way he looked physically,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Culliver’s first days in camp. “Kudos to our medical staff and everybody that’s worked with him. Kudos to him for the work he’s put in his rehab. I hadn’t seen any indication that this is a guy who just came off a year-long, basically, rehab.”
Though Culliver is taking snaps with the first-team defense, along with Brock, he says he’s not counting yet that he’s the starter.
“You keep working,” Culliver told reporters after a recent practice. “We had Carlos (Rogers) and T. (Tarell) Brown ahead of me (before). My main focus is on getting better and being 100 percent confident in what I’m doing.”
Shaking off the rust, getting back into a physical rhythm and getting back to the same attitude he had in 2011 and 2012 is what he’s shooting for.
“Same mindset,” he said. “Just working and getting all the calls and everything back down together. Haven’t been out there for a year. Got to get yourself ready to play and compete.”
Along with working to become the starter for the Sept. 7 opener vs. the Cowboys, Culliver also is dealing with an off-the-field issue. In April, Culliver pleaded not guilty to charges of possession of brass knuckles and misdemeanor hit-and-run.
“That situation is still ongoing in the court system,” Culliver told reporters. “I’m not really able to talk about that right now. We can continue to talk about football. I’m with that.”
And, for the next few weeks, during training camp and exhibition games, Culliver will continue to be under the football microscope, as coaches and teammates try to gauge if he’s up to the challenge of winning a starting job.
Fangio said much of what Culliver faces this camp is new, because in previous years he was the third corner. Now he’s trying to be an every-down corner, including in the base 3-4 scheme.
“He’s got to perfect and show that he knows what to do,” said Fangio.