SANTA CLARA — Jimmie Ward is wearing a snazzy new shoe these days. Not that it’s even noticeable.
The San Francisco 49ers are taking extra care to protect their prized defensive back’s troublesome right foot after his rookie season was cut short last fall when he sustained a second fracture and needed another surgery.
Just this week, Ward joined the full team drills at training camp — and getting used to his special new footwear has been as big of an adjustment as anything as he tries to stay on the field for his second NFL season.
“At the end of the day, it’s all in my mind,” Ward said. “It feels like I have no problems so far since I’ve been wearing it.”
A padded, plastic casing resembling a clam shell goes over his sock and covers the surgery area to keep his foot in place.
Coach Jim Tomsula refers to the shoe as a “turtle shell.”
Ward is moving well, looks physically strong and hardly seems bothered by the foot. Even after all the frustration of two fractures and surgeries in an eight-month span last year.
“Those actions can tell you where his mindset is,” Tomsula said. “He’s running around, again, a lot of that stuff was just getting used to that shoe. Jimmie worked some at the start, he’s working at the safety right now and we’ll get him in that way. That’s our plan.”
Cornerback Tramaine Brock, one of two expected starters with newcomer Shareece Wright, has been playing the nickel cornerback spot while Ward is working with the third-team safeties. He was drafted to play in nickel packages, so he is not only coming back from injury but also switching back to his old college position.
For the time being, at least. As long as he is playing, Ward will do whatever is asked of him.
Losing Ward last November was another blow for a defense that had already seen now-retired linebacker Patrick Willis go down with a toe injury that ultimately factored into his decision to end his career.
Finding some continuity now will mean a lot for new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s unit. A top-notch defense has long defined the Niners, who went 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years following three straight trips to the NFC championship game.
“He’s coming along good. He’s in the meeting room taking good notes, he’s understanding the defense,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “It’s just about him getting on the field, being able to stay on the field, stay healthy. He’s anxious to get out there.”
Ward, the 30th overall draft pick in 2014 out of Northern Illinois, finished with 20 tackles and two passes defensed in eight games as a rookie.
He started all 14 games at strong safety in his final college season, leading his team with 95 tackles — 62 solo — with a 10-yard sack and 10 pass deflections. His first surgery was March 11 last year, right after he ran the 40-yard dash in a sizzling 4.47 seconds despite his bum foot.
That speed still shows.
“Yesterday was his first real day of practice and he was flying, and I mean flying,” safety Eric Reid said Friday. “The kid has wheels and I didn’t even know it because he’s been hurt. A couple plays and he’s instantly opening our eyes. He just needs to keep doing his thing and make some plays.”
Tomsula is taking a cautious approach with players such as linebacker NaVorro Bowman and Ward after injuries. The coach didn’t say Friday who would play in Sunday’s home preseason game against the Cowboys.
“Jimmie would have rather there never been a problem with his foot a year, two years, a year-and-a-half ago,” Tomsula said. “The way Jimmie’s handling things and where he’s at, he’s doing great. … You’re not seeing any hitch in the giddy up.”