SANTA CLARA -- Tank Carradine's right knee finally appears at full strength, which is welcome news after a 49ers rookie season spent in rehabilitation.

"You see the flashes and the strength and the ability," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday. "(We) kind of have to pull him back because we're not in live situations here in practice. But (we're) very excited for where he's at right now."

It's also exciting news for a 49ers defensive line that's practicing this minicamp without Justin Smith while he rehabilitates an unknown -- but apparently minor -- injury.

The Carradine-Smith connection doesn't stop there. Nor does it merely trace to last year's draft when the 49ers' drafted Carradine in the second round as Smith's potential successor.

Carradine, a Cincinnati native, was 11 when he would go to a downtown community center and overlook Smith's rookies practices with the Bengals.

"He stood out to me," Carradine recalled Wednesday, between minicamp practices. "He was a first-round draft pick, and I can't remember the other defensive end they had, but I remember Justin because he's a loud one."

Now entering his 14th season, Smith isn't medically cleared to practice with the team because he's "working through something" that should be OK by training camp, Harbaugh said.

A year ago, it was Carradine who couldn't participate on the field, stunting his development and forcing him to play catch-up this offseason.


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A torn anterior cruciate ligament prematurely ended Carradine's Florida State career, and while it also shelved him throughout 2013, a follow-up procedure in February removed scar tissue.

"Ever since that I feel like myself," Carradine said. "I was worried last year because I didn't feel like myself. My knee was strong but I didn't feel like myself. I didn't know if I'd ever be the same again."

He wasn't the only one, and that's why he slipped in the draft to the 49ers with the 40th overall pick.

"This is his first shot," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Carradine, who he compared to a rookie in terms of on-field experience. "Last year, I never felt he was there. It came to a point this offseason he got better, got the knee cleaned up and turned the corner."

Fangio said it's too early to picture how Carradine can rotate into a deep defensive line. But guard Mike Iupati likes what he's seen in practice against Carradine.

"He'll be a good player, with his quickness and use of hands," Iupati said. "He's explosive and shifty."

Carradine said last season allowed him to learn the 49ers' scheme and techniques. Of course, it also offered him the chance to study under his childhood idol, Smith.

"He's a big guy, a physical guy and plays every down like it's his last down," Carradine said. " ... You never know when it'll be your last play. You could be having an amazing season then all of a sudden there's a knee injury."

Carradine knows that first hand. His knee injury came Nov. 25, 2012 in a loss to rival Florida. Judging from this offseason's progress, he'll have more downs to play.

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.