SANTA CLARA — Once most players had gone inside from practice on a hot day, there stood Antoine Bethea working to perfect a handshake with new 49ers teammate Demarcus Dobbs.
They tried it several times, chuckling all the while, then got back to work with more conditioning — each pulling a weighted sled up and down the field.
“It’s just building the camaraderie,” Bethea said. “I was in Indy for eight years, so whenever there was a new guy coming in you always wanted him to feel at home. That’s all it is, just trying to learn each other, learning one another as players and also people off the field.
“The handshake is just something, when you’re in training camp you’ve got to have fun, you’ve got to enjoy this moment then after that you have to go to work.”
Caught up on San Francisco’s expansive defensive playbook at last, Bethea is busy making the rounds to personally get to know as many of his teammates as possible during training camp.
He has become more vocal during the offseason as he has become more familiar with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system.
Sure, Bethea is no outspoken Donte Whitner, the departed safety known for his pounding hits and big personality, and that’s just fine with everybody around the Niners.
Bethea is establishing himself as a fearsome but friendly face in San Francisco’s new-look secondary, a unit that also lost cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers to the Oakland Raiders.
“Having this offseason and Antoine present and a lot of the guys around, it was great for us in the secondary. It’s one group that really has to communicate,” safety Craig Dahl said Thursday.
“He’s a good guy, likes to joke around. We keep it light in the meeting rooms and get to know each other on and off the field. It builds relationships, which is a big thing for a football team. You’re around each other so much, too, right now, you’ve got to like each other.”
In March, the 49ers gave Bethea a $23 million, four-year contract after Whitner left in free agency for his hometown Cleveland Browns.
The 30-year-old Bethea had 110 tackles, two interceptions and a sack last season, his sixth straight year starting every game for the Colts.
He has begun to take charge in the 49ers’ secondary, where Bethea is already plenty impressed with second-year safety Eric Reid.
“Coming into OTAs you’re trying to get your feet wet, get a good grasp on the defense,” Bethea said. “Now, being more comfortable in the defense, now out on the field I can let my eight years of experience take over and become more vocal out there.”
The main differences are in terminology, but Bethea is finding no problem expressing to his teammates what he is seeing from the offensive side.
Bethea brings the swagger and experience of a veteran who has won a Super Bowl ring, something these 49ers are striving for yet again after coming so close in each of the past three seasons. He won it all with the Indianapolis Colts as a rookie in 2006 then lost in the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
“He’s a pro. Antoine, besides being a very good football player that’s had a good NFL career up to this point, he’s a great person. He’s a great teammate,” Fangio said. “He’s willing to help anybody at any time and he’s a great team guy that’s willing to help the team.
“He’ll help anybody. And I like his approach. He came in here and he didn’t know the defense when he first came in here, so he wasn’t as verbal and wasn’t as leading because he knew had his own work that he had to take care of first. And he’s through the offseason and now he’s picking it up and I think he feels more comfortable that we can get some of his leadership qualities out of him now, too.”
So, how about an explanation of the handshake?
That’s staying top secret.
“You have to ask Dobbs. I don’t know if Dobbs wants it to get out,” Bethea said, smiling. “That’s the good thing about this team, the locker room is so open and everybody gets along and you can laugh and joke with everybody.”
Notes: WR Michael Crabtree sat out Thursday afternoon’s practice after leaving early Wednesday without trainers. “Mike’s working through something,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “He’s fine.” Crabtree returned late last season from a torn Achilles’ tendon. … Also “working through something” according to Roman is wideout Brandon Lloyd. … Dobbs, DLs Justin Smith and Ray McDonald didn’t practice.