SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Joe Staley thought nothing of it when he stepped on a stick at a Lake Michigan beach a few weeks ago. That minor pain didn't compare to the major challenges ahead in his first season as the San Francisco 49ers' left tackle.
When his right foot turned dark red and swelled to twice its normal size two weeks later, Staley realized he'd better start paying attention before he lost his footing on his breakthrough NFL season.
``The whole foot was swollen up like one of those blowup gloves,'' Staley said. ``I couldn't even put weight on it. I couldn't even bend it. My toes were so swollen. It was really gross.''
After two trips to Stanford Hospital and a few days off to deal with that nasty infection, Staley returned to individual drills at the 49ers' training complex Wednesday. He still hasn't been in a full practice protecting Alex Smith's blind side since offseason workouts, but coach Mike Nolan figures Staley has plenty of time to get it together.
``I'm pretty quick with learning the playbook,'' said Staley, who spent his extra time in the training camp hotel immersed in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's new scheme.
``The media and the fans look at the left side as being the premier position, so it gets more publicity,'' Staley said. ``You're more in the public eye if you're on the left side, but I don't really concern myself with all that stuff.''
Staley already has learned more than he wanted to know about cellulitis, a bacterial infection that can flare up around anything from a cut to a blister to a bug bite. The team initially thought Staley had been bitten by something on the beach, but now their best guess is that the infection stems from a tiny cut between his toes after stepping on that troublesome stick.
``It's good to be out here and not in my room,'' Staley said. ``It was killing me not to be with my teammates.''
Now that he's back on the practice field, Staley is determined to catch up to his teammates. And to further prove the 49ers didn't make a mistake last year when they moved up to draft him, trading away their first-round pick in 2008, which turned out to be the sixth overall selection.
Staley started all 16 games and played every snap at right tackle last season, proving to be a sturdy run-blocker and a quick learner in the passing game, despite a few typical rookie missteps against the likes of Michael Strahan. Staley was just one of three rookies to start every snap in 2097, along with teammate Patrick Willis and Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas, who was drafted 25 picks earlier than Staley.
Shortly after their 5-11 season, the 49ers announced plans to move Staley to left tackle, where he played his last two college seasons at Central Michigan after starting his career as a tight end. He'll swap places with Jonas Jennings, the veteran whose constant injury struggles have infuriated Nolan over the past three years.
The move will raise Staley's profile, but he swears he won't allow any additional notoriety to change him. He'll remain a supportive teammate and the 49ers' self-proclaimed king of karaoke, with his singing debut already taped for a regular-season appearance on Candlestick Park's video board.
With a crucial season looming both for Staley's career and the 49ers' fortunes, Staley claims his biggest challenge is simply ``not getting lazy with practice, and taking advantage of every opportunity I get to work on footwork. Not thinking I had some success last year, and I'm going to do the same thing. Always improving, always using every opportunity.''

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