What do Demarcus Dobbs, Will Tukuafu and Michael Wilhoite have in common? They are all bubble-type defensive players who would boost their chances of making the final squad by mastering an offensive position.
Dobbs (6-2, 285) is a defensive end who has been moonlighting as a tight end. (Really more like an H-back). Tukuafu (6-4, 293) has been playing fullback, as has Wilhoite (6-0, 240) who normally plays inside linebacker.
The downside to the experiment, as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio explained today, is that every day those young players are studying offense is one fewer day they are picking up the defense.
Said Fangio: "But the big picture says that if he's (Dobbs) is the fourth, fifth or sixth defensive lineman and he can fulfill a role on offense also, that allows him to, No. 1, improve his chances to make the team and, No. 2, if he makes the team allows him a better opportunity to be dressed as one of the 45 (players) on game day. ...
"So, it makes him more versatile. Does it affect his development at one position? Yes, it does," Fangio said. "There's no way around that. But in this case right now, it's better for the team and better for him and his chances of making the team."
Last year, the 49ers kept seven defensive linemen - a big number for a 3-4 defense - but had little use on defense for most of the backups. One starting defensive end, Justin Smith, played 91 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular season. The other, Ray McDonald, played 84 percent of the snaps.
Because top backup Ricky Jean Francois can play both defensive end and nose tackle and because the 49ers figure to keep more wide receivers and running backs than last year,the defensive line numbers could be less than they were a year ago. (Then again, both Jean Francois and starter Isaac Sopoaga are in their contract years, so the 49ers may want to save for the future).
Fangio had positive things to say about Dobbs, one of the team's biggest surprises during the 2011 preseason, saying that the undrafted rookie has been a hard worker in the weight room all offseason. "It's a different 285 pounds than it was last year," he said of Dobbs' physique. Dobbs had two sacks and nine tackles during last year's preseason.
Dobbs said his conditioning changed after Jim Harbaugh told him to be prepared to play more tight end this season. He said he needed to improve his stamina to properly play tight end, and that, in turn, has helped him on the defensive line.
Dobbs was in for an offensive play during the playoffs. But he said he hasn't truly been a two-way player since high school at Calvary Baptist in Savannah, Ga. where he played both tight end and linebacker. He said he was recruited exclusively as a defensive end and ended up mostly playing that position in a 4-3 scheme at Georgia.
"It is tough," Dobbs said of the balance. "You have two playbooks that you have to learn. You flip flop - one day defense, one day offense. So you constantly have to be in your books. But that's what we're here for. ... It's a learning process, but I feel like I'm on the right track."
-- Matt Barrows