SANTA CLARA, Calif. >> Just a week into training camp, Colin Kaepernick can already feel the difference between where the San Francisco 49ers’ offense is now versus this time a year ago.
All of his teammates can see the evolution, too.
Kaepernick’s confidence and comfort level has been soaring on and off the field. He has been tossing deep balls with more touch behind that powerful right arm — even leaving All-Pro linebackers questioning how to defend such precision — and strutting around the 49ers’ facility with a black beanie on his head and bright red head phones around his neck to show off his swagger.
“I think thus far I’m a lot farther ahead from where I am last year,” Kaepernick said Wednesday. “And hopefully moving forward that continues to show more and more.”
All eyes have been on Kaepernick since camp began last week.
While his favorite target has been new wide receiver Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick and tight end Vernon Davis turned in what might be the play of training camp Tuesday. A day later, the throw and catch still had the 49ers facility abuzz.
Davis, lining up in the left slot, was covered by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis underneath and safety C.J. Spillman over the top. Davis sliced across the middle of the field and made an over-the-shoulder catch on a perfectly thrown pass by Kaepernick some 45 yards down field for a touchdown.
“When Kaep threw the ball and Vernon was able to turn on another gear and go get it on the other side of the field, I’m just like, ‘Come on, that’s not even fair,'” Willis said.
The play was just a small sign of how far Kaepernick has come with his receivers.
Davis’ role diminished when Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith last season. The tight end finished with 41 receptions for 548 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season; all three were his lowest since he caught 31 passes for 358 yards and two TDs in 2008.
Kaepernick said Davis’ determination has never wavered. The two spent extra time together this offseason building that chemistry — which Davis candidly said last year they didn’t have — and trust to create big plays like the one in Tuesday’s practice.
“He did everything right on that play,” Kaepernick said. “He made the correct read on the coverage, hit his landmark and at the end had that extra burst of speed to go get the ball.”
The biggest challenge for Kaepernick so far in training camp has been finding rhythm with all of his receivers, which has been increasingly difficult because of injuries.
Top target Michael Crabtree is rehabbing his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon and is expected to miss at least half the season — and likely more. Mario Manningham is coming off an ACL tear in his knee and is expected to be back “at some point” this season, coach Jim Harbaugh said. And Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins and Kassim Osgood each came off the field Tuesday with apparent leg issues, though none seemed serious.
Kaepernick has used the time to develop a rapport with others receivers, including shifty slot man Chad Hall, who has surprisingly emerged as one of the quarterback’s favorite targets for one reason.
“He gets open,” Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick believes the work he did with most of his receivers following the Super Bowl will alleviate the time they miss in training camp nursing injuries. They spent about two months in the Atlanta area running routes and studying the playbook, and the coaches have noticed the offseason work.
“I think Colin’s getting better at really everything he does, just because of the approach he takes. He’s definitely somebody with a live arm, and I think he’s really focused on all his throws — short, intermediate and deep,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
The 49ers believe Kaepernick’s experience in the offense is what has led to his progression.
Kaepernick, drafted in the second round out of Nevada in 2011, is entering his third season under Harbaugh and Roman — and first as the unquestioned starter. He finished 7-3 as the leading man last season with 1,814 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for a quarterback playoff record 181 yards — with a 56-yard touchdown against Green Bay in the divisional playoffs — and he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where they lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens.
While the regular season doesn’t begin until Sept. 8 against the Packers, Kaepernick said his command of the offense in camp gives the 49ers a powerful starting point.
“It’s just being more comfortable with the receivers,” Kaepernick said. “People I’m throwing to, our tight ends, receivers, they’re making plays and I’m putting the ball up there.”
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