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October 6, 2011
Jean Francois suddenly -- finally -- the man in the middle

Ricky Jean Francois has been the hard-working understudy for the past two offseasons. Now he finally gets his chance under the spotlight.


Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio today said it's "highly unlikely" that starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who returned from the 49ers' nine-day road trip with a staph infection, will be available to play the Buccaneers and their power-running offense. But Fangio also expressed full confidence in backup Jean Francois.

"If he plays the way he played in those preseason games, we're in more than good shape (at nose tackle)," Fangio said.

For the past two years, Jean Francois has been Mr. Preseason. He took the lion's share of nose tackle snaps during the 2010 offseason while Aubrayo Franklin held out because of a contract dispute. When training camp began this year, he again was the man in the middle while Sopoaga recovered from a hamstring injury.

The 49ers will give up about 20 pounds with Jean Francois manning the point of their defense. He said today that he's about 310 pounds. Sopoaga is listed as 330 pounds. Both, however, move well for men their size and Jean Francois has shown the toughness needed at the position.

What he needed to improve this offseason, Jean Francois said, was his technique. When Franklin suffered a groin injury last year in Green Bay, Jean Francois entered and got the most extensive playing time of his career. But he was shoved around in the second half as the Packers, who raced out to a big lead, salted away the game.

Jean Francois said he dedicated himself this offseason to maintaining his stamina - he did so running the beaches of his native Miami with Phil Collins in his earphones - and by concentrating on his technique.

"Once you get tired at some point, you've got to use technique," he said. "And that was one thing that I always worked on. I had to work on my technique. I had to. That was the biggest thing for me at that position because a lot of people said I'm too small, I'm not fast enough, I might not be strong enough, so my technique has to fall in."

If this nose-tackle scenario had occurred last week, it wouldn't have been as big a deal. The Eagles threw the ball 60 times vs. 12 runs, and the need for a run-stuffing nose tackle was minimized. This week, however, is different. The Buccaneers have made no bones about wanting to run straight up the middle, something they did with success last year in their 21-0 win in San Francisco.

"We're playing the team we want to," Jean Francois said. "We're playing against a team that's good at running the ball, and ... I give this guy (tailback LeGarrette Blount) respect. This is probably one of the best rushers in the NFL, the young guy."

Odds & Ends

• After successful trips to San Francisco and Arizona last year, the Buccaneers began referring to themselves as "west coast killers." (Never mind that Arizona is landlocked). What do the 49ers think of the moniker? "I'm going to bite my tongue on that one," safety Dashon Goldson said. "But they've got to come in our backyard."

• The 49ers had only two three healthy cornerbacks in Wednesday's practice. Goldson, however, said he thought one of them, Shawntae Spencer (toe) would be able to play Sunday. If he can't, rookie Chris Culliver, who played about 10 snaps against the Eagles, would enter the game in nickel situations.

• Fangio also said that safety Donte Whitner likely would be ready. Whitner could have played last week with a hip injury, but Fangio held him out. "Healthy players are better than unhealthy players," he said.

* Right tackle Anthony Davis was fined $25,000 by the league for two tripping penalties he incurred Sunday. He was caught leg-whipping his opponent on both plays.

• How much did Fangio enjoy watching Justin Smith jar the ball loose from Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin on Sunday? He called it the defensive equivalent of The Catch. I guess we should call it The Poke.

-- Matt 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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