49ers TE Vernon Davis eager to return to dominant performances in fresh start after tough year

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SANTA CLARA, California — Vernon Davis is perfectly candid about what he went through last season, among his hardest years ever. Injured and an afterthought at times, Davis had one of his least productive overall performances as a pro.

"Oh, man, it was something. It was tough. It was hard," he said, noting that even once he was healthy, "I wasn't involved. I wasn't a factor. Shocking, yeah. It was probably the toughest year I've had in my life."

Come Monday night's season opener at home against Minnesota, it's a fresh slate — and a most welcome one at that for a guy so used to being among the most dynamic tight ends in the league.

Davis missed two games during the first half of last season and was hampered much of the year by an ankle injury and regular back pain. Frustration mounted even after getting back on the field.

"I'm not just talking about the injuries. I was injured but I was only injured for the games that I missed and some of the games I came back," he said. "Most of the games I came back ... I wasn't healthy but I played. But even when I got healthy it was still tough. We all go into the season with targets and goals, and when you don't achieve it, it kind of puts a sour taste in your mouth, like 'Uh, why this didn't happen, that didn't happen?'"

There were other issues, too.

He acknowledged as training camp began this year that he had parted ways with an adviser before last season who had been urging him to push for a new contract. He said: "I fired that person because he worships money. That's not what I worship."

Now, he's heading into a contract year looking to show he's still one of the most dynamic and athletic tight ends in the league who can catch touchdown passes as regularly as he did when he had a career-best 13 TD receptions in 2009 and then again in 2013. He's playing in a new system with new coaches and can't wait to catch passes from quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who spent much of the offseason working out with Kurt Warner in Arizona.

"I don't really see it as turning the page. We just need Vernon to be Vernon," Kaepernick said. "He's a phenomenal player, a great talent and someone that can make great contributions to this team. So, when we step on that field, I think everyone will be excited to see what he does."

The 31-year-old Davis managed only 26 receptions — his lowest total since his rookie season of 2006 — for a career-low 245 yards and two touchdown catches to match his low for TDs, despite then-offensive coordinator Greg Roman's repeated words he wanted Davis more involved in the offense.

"I just stayed positive. I just said, 'I've got to finish strong, finish hard, do everything I can to help this team,'" Davis said. "Of course when you're losing, everybody's critiquing you. It's part of life. You have to deal with it. It's cool. It makes you stronger, right? When you're weak you're strong."

Not that anybody around him ever notices anything but an energetic, upbeat Davis.

"You see Vernon and you realize just what we think an anomaly the previous year was. That happens, especially to veterans," offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said Friday. "The past is the past."

Now, as has been his routine for years, Davis can still be seen after practice doing a little extra, catching balls out of the passing machine. Or on a side field working 1-on-1 with new tight ends coach and former Raiders head coach Tony Sparano.

Everybody who watches Davis can tell he is as motivated as ever to bounce back. He is eager to learn and better himself even as he begins his 10th season.

"I've seen really an unbelievable commitment to just that," Sparano said. "As I've told him, I respect the fact that he's given me the opportunity — a guy who's played as many years as he has — to come in and coach him, to take coaching the way he has. It's been really healthy. ... When you have the ability to be as dynamic as Vernon does, to go out there and get better at a couple things over the course of OTAs and this offseason the way he has, those are really positive signs."

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