Our first Gameday Magazine of 2011 featured my cover story on the 49ers 2011 draft class. The words, however, really came to life thanks to a classic photo of the bunch taken at a recent training camp practice by team photographer Michael Zagaris.
If you were unable to pick up the first edition of Gameday, you can read the articles and content online. The cover story, “Ready to Work,” discussed the relationships and dynamics of the 10 players selected by the 49ers in the 2011 NFL Draft. The story ran this past Saturday, but many of the quotes and insights from the story remain valid today.
So without further ado, enjoy a closer look at this year’s rookie class:
Ready to Work:
Behind the scenes with the 2011 San Francisco 49ers draft class.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com
Welcome to the jungle, rookies. You are now in the NFL – the fast-paced, ever-changing, competitive juggernaut, which molds men into champions and cities into masses of Faithful fans. It’s a fitting home for the 49ers draft class, one that can be summed up best with a simple description.
Hungry and humble.
That was the shared mindset of 10 rookies entering 4949 Centennial Blvd., on July 28. Confident in their abilities and ready to work, the NFL newcomers each signed contracts before the start of training camp so they could help first-year coach Jim Harbaugh restore the 49ers as the top franchise in pro football. After all, it’s not hard to think about Super Bowl glory when five shiny Vince Lombardi trophies stare you in the face as you enter the lobby. They’re there to remind everyone of the team’s unequivocal mission. Personal glory is one thing, but anyone who has ever been associated with the 49ers knows that winning world championships is what matters most.
And so the mixed bag of players from all parts of the United States has come together in recent weeks, spending hours in meeting rooms, then sweating side-by-side during three-hour sessions on the team’s sunny Santa Clara practice fields to get prepared for the 2011 regular season.
Besides character, several striking similarities exist between the rookies. Take the team’s first two draft picks, linebacker Aldon Smith and quarterback Colin Kaepernick as examples. Both possess 21st-century-athleticism seldom seen from players at their positions. Then, you have perimeter players like cornerback Chris Culliver and wide receiver Ronald Johnson, who constantly battle on the practice fields to prove which player attended the better “USC.” Others like small-town Texans running back Kendall Hunter and safety Colin Jones would rather let their play do their talking than gain attention from quotable post game press conferences or memorable tweets. Meanwhile, rookie offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person could spend hours debating who has better fishing in their respective home states of Tennessee and Montana. And lastly, Florida boys Bruce Miller and Curtis Holcomb can already attest to the realities of the NFL lifestyle. Miller was recently cleared off the Physically Unable to Perform list, while Holcomb suffered a season-ending injury early in camp.
Now with one preseason game under their belts, the rookies are continuing to earn the respect of their coaches and veteran teammates. And each is going about it the right way. Every rookie sounded optimistic about the task at hand; they’re also pleased with the relationships being formed thus far. “We’ve had so much help from the veterans on the team,” says Smith, an outside linebacker selected No. 7 overall out of Missouri. “When you have good teammates around you, it makes everything easier.” Talent helps too, and Smith was born with plenty of tools. He flashed his play-making ability in his preseason debut in New Orleans, totaling four tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. But it’s not like Smith’s getting ahead of himself. His goals are simple. “Make plays, get sacks and make a difference on the field,” says Smith, who recently picked No. 99 as his professional uniform number. The reasoning behind it? “Ninety-nine is good, it’s close to 100,” he jokes. Like a Madden video game rating? “Yeah, I want to be the best.”
God-given talents and unique athleticism make things easier for Smith and Kaepernick, the 49ers second-round pick out of Nevada. Both players reach out and grab your attention – literally. Smith’s 83 and 7/8-inch wingspan have extended a positive dialogue about the 6-foot-4, 258-pound converted college defensive end. The same goes for Kaepernick, an athletically gifted 6-foot-4, 230-pounder who runs like a wide receiver and frequently displays his “hose” of a right arm, a description coined by Harbaugh himself. Kaepernick made several standout plays in his preseason debut as well, accounting for 164 combined passing and rushing yards in New Orleans.
Both players come to the 49ers with an eagerness to learn and uncommon skill sets. “When you look at a player like Aldon, you kind of see him as a physical freak,” says Kaepernick, the only player in NCAA history to throw for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in a career. “He has the combination of everything you want in a defensive player. I’m excited he’s on our side.”
Those feelings are understandable; Kaepernick was once sacked by Smith in college. He’s just glad he never has to worry about it again. But for now, Kaepernick will have to concentrate on not throwing the ball to defensive backs like Culliver, a third-round selection out of South Carolina, who comes to the 49ers with a ready-to-work mentality. “I just give my all,” says the 6-foot, 199-pound defensive back, who made three tackles against the Saints. “I’m a go-hard-type-of-guy and I like to play physical.”
Culliver also likes to match up against Johnson, the 49ers sixth-round pick out of Southern Cal, the other USC. “I like his style of play,” shares Culliver. “He tries to get leverage on you and he’s definitely a hard-worker, so you have to compete when you’re running with someone like him.” In a similar vein, Johnson described himself just like Culliver. “I’m hungry,” said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound wideout who would likely eat the chip on the shoulder he plays with. “I want to contribute to the team – I can’t wait to play.”
Eagerness to play also applies to the rookies on the 49ers offensive line. Both Kilgore and Person aim to prove small-school players can succeed in the NFL. “It’s a good feeling to know I’m part of the organization,” says Kilgore, a 6-foot-3, 308-pound interior lineman drafted in the fifth round out of Division I Football Championship Subdivision power Appalachian State. “I’m proud and honored to be a 49er.” He’s also proud of his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., home to some of the best outdoor activities in the country. But not so fast says Person. The seventh-round lineman drafted from another FCS school Montana State, has a thought or two on the subject. It came up this offseason while both spent time in the Bay Area working with veterans on the 49ers offensive line. Apparently the two came together as teammates, just not as fishermen. “I love to fly fish,” says Person a 6-foot-4, 299-pounder who prides himself on being a hard-working player. “Montana has the best fly fishing in the United States besides Alaska.”
Debates may take place between the linemen, but not so much when it comes to soft-spoken players like Hunter and Jones. “I’m a cool, laid-back type of guy,” says Hunter, the 5-foot-7, 199-pound running back out of Oklahoma State, who hails from Katy, Texas. The same demeanor is shared by Jones, a Texas Christian product selected in the sixth round. Jones grew up 300 miles away in Bridgeport, a small city outside of Dallas. And while Jones’ childhood saw him root for the Cowboys, the 6-foot, 208-pound safety explains, “Those days are done. I’m happy to be a part of this organization.”
The feeling is mutual for Miller, who is happy to be back on the field with his new teammates. Though he was sidelined early in camp, Miller says he’s ready and eager to compete at a new position. The 6-foot-2, 248-pound college defensive end at Central Florida has been converted to fullback with the 49ers. Fortunately for Miller and the rest of the rookie class, each player came into camp prepared. “That’s been our mentality the whole time,” shares the former Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. “During the offseason, we were out here in California making sure we were ready to go.”
And now the time has come for the rookies to make their Candlestick Park debuts. Making things more memorable for their first performance in front home fans is the opposition, none other than the Oakland Raiders. By now, it’s clear the rookies are ready to play. “It’s the first chance for most of my family to come see me play,” says Kaepernick. “That puts a lot at stake, plus it’s against our Bay Area rivals, so you want to perform your best.”
Kaepernick is eager to see how he “stacks up” against NFL competition in his home debut, same goes for his rookie teammates, who might not be as familiar with the Battle of the Bay. “I love rivalries,” says Culliver, a Philadelphia native who played college ball in the South. “I don’t know much about the history of this rivalry. They’re right down the street so I guess it’s like a South Carolina-Clemson game.”
While the rookies have enjoyed the newfound NFL experiences they’ve gone through thus far, the attention they’ve received hasn’t gone to their heads. Even the photo shoot for this Gameday cover could not inflate their egos. Have they reached NFL fame already because of one shoot?
“No, not yet,” says Hunter. “We haven’t reached that stage.”
The stage they have reached is Candlestick Park.
Posted in Announcements | 6 Comments »