NFL

49ers cornerback Clements finally healthy again

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)

Nate Clements slapped hands with Shawntae Spencer following the fellow cornerback's interception. Clements patted linebacker Scott McKillop on the helmet after another nice play by the defense.

Clements is having an absolute blast being back on the field for the San Francisco 49ers. Finally gone are the glum days of sporting a sling over his right shoulder and the grind of daily rehabilitation.

Clements missed the final nine games last season after he broke his right shoulder blade in the Niners' 18-14 loss at Indianapolis on Nov. 1. He might have returned in the final weeks had the 49ers, who finished 8-8, been in playoff contention.

''It's good to be injury-free,'' Clements said this week. ''I healed up before the season was over with, so I got a chance to really get even more time and rest and rehab and training. It feels good just to be back running around on the field.''

The 30-year-old Clements has never reached the postseason, and he hopes to change that in his 10th NFL season and fourth with the 49ers following six in Buffalo.

When on the field last season, Clements was effective and often matched up with the top receiver. He had 35 tackles, 30 of those solo, and one interception.

''We got our tandem back,'' Spencer said Friday. ''We're enjoying each other. We're playing off each other, feeding off each other's energy. He has a great understanding of the game. I watch him a lot on certain techniques. You always see us talking between plays, hand signals and stuff like that, pretty much playing off each other to make everything look the same and confuse the offense. It's a joy playing with him. He's the ultimate professional the way he approaches his job every day and comes to practice every day.''

Clements was happy to finally rid himself of the sling he wore for nearly two months late last year.

''It was too long. I don't even like to think about that,'' Clements said. ''It was a while. Right now I'm just thinking football.''

San Francisco is eager to see more big plays from Clements after giving him an $80 million, eight-year contract in March 2007. The former first-round pick by Buffalo was among the most prized players available in free agency that year.

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky expects defensive backs to need about a week to get back into a rhythm at the start of camp.

''He's playing fairly good,'' Manusky said. ''We'll be seeing (more) from next week probably. I want to see how his footwork is. I think give him a little bit of time to get everything, get the calls, work on his fundamentals and footwork and all of a sudden it usually starts to pick up in the second week.''

Clements' 14 forced fumbles since 2004 are second for cornerbacks.

Clements likely will be pushed in training camp for the starting job at left cornerback by Tarell Brown, the player who initially replaced him in the lineup after the injury.

''I think I have something to prove every year. That's the way I approach the game,'' Clements said. ''Every year you've got a new breed coming in, so the competition definitely gets stiffer. I think every year being a professional you have something to prove as an individual.''

The 49ers' defense from last season is largely still intact, though nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has yet to arrive and sign his one-year franchise tender. Linebacker Patrick Willis is back as the anchor of a defense that expects to wreak havoc every Sunday, and he has quite a talented supporting cast.

This unit finished 15th in the league and fourth in points allowed with 281 total. Seven times the Niners held an opponent to 10 or fewer points.

San Francisco also wound up with 44 sacks, the most by the franchise since 51 in 1998. The Niners had 33 takeaways, good for fifth in the NFL, with 18 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries - all positives for a hard-nosed unit that wants to get at the quarterback at every opportunity.

Clements knows he can't change what happened in his injury-shortened 2009 season, but he's looking forward to seeing how he and Spencer do leading the secondary.

Clements spent the offseason in Arizona for the first time, working out with a personal trainer who not only helped him regain strength in his shoulder and core but also tweaked his running style to help Clements develop more of a burst out of his first step.

Now, it's just getting refreshed on all the football details, like the playbook. He spent his share of time reading the plays and mentally preparing for the rigors of a new season, too.

''Every year you've always got to knock the rust off,'' Clements said. ''You train but when you get into the football aspect of it and you run the plays, you have to regain that terminology and the concepts. I feel great. I trained extremely hard this offseason.''

Notes: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived at the end of the morning practice to speak to a meeting of the Bay Area Council, of which 49ers team president Jed York is a member. ... QB Alex Smith gave Schwarzenegger a tour of the weight room and the governor also met with LB Patrick Willis and visited the training room.

Tagged: 49ers, Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, Patrick Willis

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