SANTA CLARA -- Questions remain whether key defensive cog Ray McDonald will play in Sunday's opener, but the 49ers can take relief that they apparently won't be down a prime offensive weapon.

Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is back on track for his Dallas homecoming. He returned to practice Thursday after a calf injury kept him off the field Wednesday.

"I'm excited, man," Crabtree said. "I'm going from selling popcorn and hot dogs in the stands at Cowboys games (as a youth) to being able to play them.

"Anybody's got to be excited for that. I can't wait to go back home."

Crabtree provided an uplifting storyline for a team besieged by recent woes, most notably McDonald's domestic-violence arrest Sunday that is being reviewed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office for possible charges.

San Francisco 49ers’ Michael Crabtree (15) particpates in team practice at the San Francisco 49ers training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., on
San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree (15) particpates in team practice at the San Francisco 49ers training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

Beside Crabtree's calf, there are other injury issues: right tackle Anthony Davis (hamstring) missed his second straight practice, and cornerback Chris Culliver (ankle) and tight end Vance McDonald (hamstring) were limited.

Crabtree is certainly healthier than a year ago. After tearing his right Achilles in May, Crabtree missed the first 11 games last season. When he returned, he wasn't at full health, although he flourished in the playoff-opening win over the Green Bay Packers (eight catches, 125 yards).

"He went out, gutted it out and helped us win a lot of football games, and that's what we're looking forward to this year," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.


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Now entering his sixth season with the 49ers, Crabtree's rookie contract is set to expire, and though the NFL Network reported last month an extension appeared imminent, Crabtree didn't corroborate that.

"I don't pretty much worry about all that," Crabtree said of his contract. "I let it handle itself. Right now we're thinking about the Cowboys."

Crabtree shared humorous tales about how he started working at Cowboys games in Texas Stadium's concession stands at age 6, doing so with his pee-wee football team. By age 10 and 11, he was in the stands selling items while sneaking peeks at the Cowboys and collecting mementos such as autographs, towels and gloves.

"I was the only Little League player with NFL gear on," said Crabtree, who also got to know some of the Cowboys stars. He said his cousin served as a bodyguard for Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

Which Cowboys receiver does he most resemble? "I'm pretty much myself," Crabtree responded. " ... But if you see me going up on a jump ball, I would say I'm like Alvin Harper. If you see me in the middle catching a ball, I'd say I'm more like Michael Irvin.

"But those guys were great. I'm just trying to get there."

When Terrell Owens twice celebrated touchdown catches by racing to the Cowboys' midfield logo in 2000, Crabtree was a 13-year-old watching on television instead of working in the stands. "I wasn't there, but I've been thinking about it," Crabtree said with a playful smile.

If Crabtree finds the end zone Sunday, he'll do so in front of 70 friends and family for whom he's bought tickets. "It's going to be fun. It's going to be challenging. I'm going back home, get to see my family," said Crabtree, who became a father last month. "But at the same time we've got business to take care of in playing this game."

  • McDonald's delayed arrival to practice did not result in any missed time in team drills, according to a team spokesman, explaining why McDonald wasn't listed as a limited participant on the team's post-practice report. It remains unknown why McDonald showed up tardy for a second consecutive day.

    "Obviously, Ray would be a loss. He's one of our top players, particularly up front," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "But, we played without Ray some last year, too. We'll be ready to go."

    Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine were mentioned by Fangio as possible replacements.

  • Fangio confirmed several projected starters: inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite, nickel back Jimmie Ward, and cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Culliver. Dan Skuta is expected to start in place of Aldon Smith at outside linebacker, though Corey Lemonier also should see action. Rookie Chris Borland also could see time at inside linebacker, Fangio said.

  • Davis hasn't missed a start in his four year career, but that streak appears in jeopardy, and it could prompt the 49ers to start Jonathan Martin at right tackle. Martin started every exhibition at right tackle while Davis recovered from offseason biceps surgery.

  • Roman said he'll defer to the "hot hand" regarding how he'll rotate running back Frank Gore with understudies Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James. "If somebody's hot, we've got to stay with the hot hand and try to have a plan ahead of time, though, to where we can utilize each player in a specific manner," Roman said.

  • Smith, in accordance with his league-imposed suspension, is attending meetings and working out in the weight room during practice, which he cannot watch. "He's doing anything and everything he can under the guidelines to continue to be involved as much as he can," Fangio said.

    For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.

    Sunday's game

    49ers at Dallas, 1:25 p.m. FOX