The familiar sounds of thumping pads returned to the 49ers practice fields on Sunday as the team ditched the gym shorts for gold pants and donned pads for the first time in training camp.
Or as offensive coordinator Greg Roman put it, "It's real football now. We're not running around in our underwear."
Contact is obviously an important part of the game, especially in the trenches. As coach Jim Harbaugh noted, the offensive line has experienced plenty of mental growth this season, but Sunday will mark its first true test of ability. Factors like leverage, pad-level and quickness will come to the forefront as linemen engage in genuine contact.
"It's exciting to get out here and get started with real football," Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley said. "The first couple of days is just kind of install and getting your legs underneath you a little bit. … Now it's full-go."
Staley said he's especially looking forward to putting on the pads and practicing his run-blocking during training camp.
The 49ers featured the eighth-best ground attack in the league last year behind another Pro Bowl season from Frank Gore, who totaled 1,211 yards en route to becoming the all-time franchise rushing leader. But the San Francisco backfield figures to be much more crowded in 2012 with the additions of free agent Brandon Jacobs and draftee LaMichael James.
Both Jacobs and James bring different skill sets to the 49ers offense, giving creative Roman some more weapons at his fingertips.
"Great talents," Staley said of the team's new running backs. "They both bring something unique. Brandon is obviously a big running back with a bruising kind of style and LaMichael is more of a Kendall Hunter kind of guy. He's really impressed; he's got great cuts and great vision and I think we'll be able to do a lot of different things with him. I like what our front office did this year, bringing in a lot of talented players. "
While Gore has been the franchise's bell cow in the backfield in recent years, Roman hasn't thought about how he will divide the workload in 2012, saying playing time will "sort itself out."
Regardless of who they're blocking for, Staley said the offensive linemen keep the same mentality.
"We're just trying to maul," Staley said.
The 49ers recently added another mauling presence with the addition of veteran free agent Leonard Davis, an 11-year pro who's vying for the starting right guard position along with Alex Boone and Daniel Kilgore.
Though Sunday marked his fourth day with the organization, Davis has already made a big impression on his coaches and teammates.
"He's a huge human being. Just a huge human," Staley said of his new 6-foot-6-inch, 375-pound teammate. "He's a great guy and fits in well with the offensive line, not only personality and everything, but he's a real hard worker."
Much like his players, Roman is looking forward to the padded practice sessions, as it will give him and the coaching staff a more accurate evaluation of the team's personnel. For position battles like the one at right guard, the next six weeks will determine who the best five linemen are for the 49ers.
"Especially for the offensive line, you really need this padded work to get a true indication of where somebody's at," Roman said. "We brought Leonard Davis in. Leonard's competing well. He's picking up the system well. Alex Boone, obviously, he's been here. He's doing a really good job. It's a good segue, it's a good lead-up into getting those pads on."
Staley put together a career year in 2011, being named to his first Pro Bowl and helping the 49ers reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002. But like his fellow 49ers, Staley doesn't sound like he's waiting for success to repeat itself.
"It's a new season," Staley said. "It's the 2012 season; you can't get caught up on what we did last year. We have to wipe the slate clean. Obviously, we did a lot of good things last year, but we have a lot of improvements we need to make.
"We know the kind of talent as a team we have here. We saw the success last year, but like I said, it doesn't mean anything this year. Everyone is 0-0 and everybody's hungry."