49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 26, 2010
Fullback: Miller nipping at Norris' heels

Along with - theoretically, at least - news that the 49ers' remaining draft picks have signed their contracts, I'll be writing this week about some of the more interesting storylines in the 49ers' upcoming training camp. The team will report to camp later this week, but players will begin the summer sessions in the classroom brushing up on what they learned in May and June. This ought to ensure they are champing at the bit when the first practice begins Monday morning. This, of course, also means that while a draft pick may officially miss the start of training camp, he may not necessarily miss a practice.

Today: fullback.

The 49ers showed mild interest in fullback Vanness Emokpae in the supplemental draft earlier this month, but in the end they decided they were comfortable going into training camp with Moran Norris, 32, and Brit Miller, 23, at the position. That's not to say that the two are vying for the same roster spot. I think both will make the team because Miller proved to be a solid special teams player as a rookie last season. (And because he's been on the top special teams units during the spring).

Norris and the 49ers running game, meanwhile, had what only can be described as a sputtering 2009 season. In many ways, Norris is symbolic of Jimmy Raye's offense in that he's a throwback-style player. He's a big, broad-shouldered thumper who isn't very agile and who is almost no threat as a receiver. Raye has said he wants a "square-backed" guy who can be a battering ram for Frank Gore. In 2009, however, Norris mostly seemed to be in Gore's way because defenses had no problem plugging the line of scrimmage. In fact, Norris' presence in the offensive huddle usually heralded a one-yard loss.

The question then is whether that problem was attributable to Raye's offense or to Norris' inability to get into the hole quickly and create space. (Spoiler alert: it was both). Because Raye still is the offensive coordinator and because his philosophy hasn't changed in the last year (or 30) I expect Norris will remain the team's starting fullback when the season begins. However, should the 49ers running game falter again, you have to wonder if Miller -- a younger, quicker player who showed a certain niftiness as a receiver last preseason -- will get a chance.

Miller, of course, played inside linebacker in college. While he may be raw at fullback, the 49ers believe he has the body type, and more importantly, the grit to be an NFL fullback. He caught my eye last year when, on the first day of training camp, he held his ground against Patrick Willis in one of the first nutcracker drills. Miller is bigger and stronger this season after recovering from a pectoral injury he was suffering from at this time last year.

Michael Robinson and Jehuu Caulcrick also are listed at the position. Robinson is a far better pass catcher (and runner after the catch) than he is a lead blocker, and his role on offense is on third downs. Caulcrick, meanwhile, has the size of a fullback but has yet to acquire the mentality. He was a gifted runner at Michigan State, but the 49ers are trying to train him to seek out tacklers rather than avoid them.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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