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At 40, Phil Dawson enjoys role as mentor to rookie punter
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SANTA CLARA (AP) — One’s the oldest on the team by a long shot at 40 and entering his 17th NFL season. The other is a poised rookie and the 49ers’ youngest player who just turned 21 in June.

Veteran kicker Phil Dawson is thoroughly enjoying his role as mentor for strong-legged punter Bradley Pinion, and the two have spent their time early in training camp finding a rhythm and learning each other’s tendencies.

During practice, Dawson and Pinion slap hands after a field goal before moving back and trying again from farther out. They have lockers next to each other in Levi’s Stadium.

“We’re building camaraderie,” Dawson said after a recent workout. “It’s going to take some time, but man, he’s super talented. He’s got a great attitude. It’s just going to come with reps and reps and he understands that. I understand that, so it’s just every day we come out, put a little more work in. The goal is to be ready Week 1. If we have a hiccup here or there in preseason, that’s not what we’re aiming for, but the goal is Week 1, be ready to rock and roll.”

In the months since the 49ers selected him in the fifth round of the draft, Pinion has done just about everything possible to show he belongs as a rookie: He has a strong foot, his punts have serious hang time and they’re tricky to catch with plenty of spin, and he has clicked with Dawson since Day 1.

The 49ers felt so confident in Pinion they traded three-time All Pro Andy Lee to Cleveland.

Coach Jim Tomsula guards against becoming too giddy observing the impressive young punter — and he is awfully fun to watch.

“Again, Bradley’s not done a thing with a live rush or anything. So, I want to make sure we temper that,” Tomsula said. “But yes, we all see the same things on the field with the talent. It’s there.”

Dawson and Pinion have worked tirelessly to find their timing together, striking a bond in the process.

“I enjoy still learning,” Dawson said. “I get a super talented kid who can do some special things with the football, and as someone who studies kicking and punting and is always looking to learn, it’s a new guy to learn from and another new friend to make.”

Pinion spent the mandatory June minicamp working to find a rapport with Dawson, who didn’t attend optional organized team activities this offseason.

“He can kick, man,” returner and wideout Bruce Ellington said. “It’s high. Sometimes you might have to fair catch that.”

The 6-foot-5, 229-pound Pinion returned home to North Carolina after minicamp to work with kicking coach Dan Orner, and believes he made strides in his holding.

“That was something I want Phil to feel as comfortable as possible. He’s an awesome guy, he’s really taught me a lot,” Pinion said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there and doing what I know I can do. Hopefully, the coaches like it.”

Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr. said the two will compete to handle kickoff duties, perhaps a way to keep Dawson focused strictly on his field goals. Dawson converted all 33 of his extra points last year and hit 25 of 31 field goals.

“There’s nothing new under the sun. They’re both very talented. Phil’s done it for a long time,” McGaughey said. “Bradley has a great, young leg and we’ll see how it shakes out.”

The returners have been challenged to catch Pinion’s punts.

“He has a boot, he can really kick it. In the spring there was a punt, it was like 65 yards before it even hit the ground,” linebacker Nick Moody said.

As so many other 49ers walked away from football during the offseason, Dawson never considered it.

“Not one second. When I signed this deal two years ago, I told you guys I expected to perform at an elite level for the term and then some,” he said. “I’m more encouraged now that I can do that than I was two years ago when I signed it. I feel better, I feel stronger. I expect big things and I’m really excited to let it rip this fall.”

Notes: LB NaVorro Bowman, sporting brace on his left knee while working his way back from ACL and MCL surgery, intercepted a pass by Colin Kaepernick in full-team drills. He stepped in front of receiver Jerome Simpson to Kaepernick’s right and broke down the sideline. It was Bowman’s first interception since returning to practice. ... DL Quinton Dial (rep count), DE Kaleb Ramsey (muscle strain), Ellington (muscle strain), LB Philip Wheeler (muscle strain), WR Dres Anderson (soreness) and WR Chuck Jacobs (soreness) were held from practice... WR Torrey Smith participated in individual drills, but was rested during the team period.