49ers rookie Miller making big strides as fullback
Bruce Miller became so caught up in the biggest moment yet of
his football career that he handed the ball from his first NFL
touchdown right back to a referee.
Rookie mistake. He now has the special souvenir for safekeeping,
thanks to some quick thinking by the 49ers equipment crew to get it
back. There was plenty of razzing afterward.
”He’s not very smart. He should have kept the football,” San
Francisco running backs coach Tom Rathman said. ”I was like: `What
are you doing? You keep the ball!’ `Well, I just forgot.’
”It was a nice thing for him to have some production in the
passing game in the end zone. I don’t know if he’s ever scored a
touchdown before. Obviously he didn’t know what to do when he got
in there. I told him to act like a pro, like you’ve been there
before. `I did coach. I gave the ball to the official.’ That’s what
his comment was.”
Miller, a cheerful redhead with the beard to match, caught the
49ers’ lone touchdown in Sunday’s 19-11 win at Washington and has
emerged as a feel-good story in a season of successes for the NFC
West-leading Niners (7-1).
He’s a converted defensive end making the most of his chances at
fullback – an opportunity he landed only after starter Moran Norris
went down with a fractured left fibula during training camp.
Even Miller is surprised with how much he gets to do in his
first professional season.
”I really was just wanting to come in and do anything I could
do to help, and I was expecting more special teams defense. But
when they called up and said fullback that was a big surprise, so I
was excited about that,” Miller said. ”It’s been tough, but each
week, every day, I get better and better.”
Miller plans to give the touchdown ball as a gift to his
parents, Bruce and Lisa, who were in the stands to see his 30-yard
touchdown reception and have seen all of his games so far.
They weren’t the only ones who got a thrill seeing him
”I was trying to run on the field and catch him. I was happy
for him making the touchdown,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean
Francois said. ”For him to go out there to give us that big score
and everything like that, it’s just good. It’s a rookie doing
A rookie chosen 211th overall in the seventh round of April’s
draft, no less. And now making an impact for a team poised to
clinch the NFC West crown in a matter of weeks. And he’s doing it
learning a new position after the 49ers told him that’s where he
was most needed.
He wasn’t even expected to play on offense before Norris got
Miller dominated at defensive end at Central Florida, earning
Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors while becoming
the school’s all-time sacks leader with 36.
So, imagine his surprise when the Niners told him they wanted to
draft him to play fullback.
All this time, Miller had prepared himself to play linebacker in
Scout Matt Malaspina campaigned for Miller and pushed the brass
to draft him. During a spring predraft workout, Malaspina asked
Miller to run routes.
Malaspina vouched for Miller’s hands. He was convinced he’d be a
quick study. Miller had the right frame to be a fullback, too:
6-foot-2, 248 pounds.
”He was right on there,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. ”But I
think the thing that sold me the most was he said Bruce was all
about football, that he loved football.”
Still, Rathman was skeptical at first. He had no idea what
Miller could do – especially post-lockout with no minicamps or
organized team activities to give him a head start in making the
”It was a great challenge I took upon myself, to develop a
defensive lineman into a fullback,” said Rathman, a running back
for the 49ers during the glory days. ”Typically players that play
on the line of scrimmage don’t translate to backfield play. They’re
totally different games. The intrigue, the way you approach it, the
type of blocks that you have to have, and here’s a kid that never
has had to block before. He’s a developing product right now. Still
improving, still needs to get better. But it’s been a solid job to
Frank Gore calls Miller ”mini Rathman,” apparently a term of
endearment in this winning locker room.
After the draft, Miller initially expressed being ”shocked”
about making the position change – but insisted he was eager to
take on the challenge.
Harbaugh appreciated that unselfish approach.
Then, on Sunday, Miller delivered with his first offensive
touchdown since his days as a tight end at Woodstock High in
Georgia in 2005.
They all loved it when he sprinted down the left sideline on a
wheel route past Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh before making
an athletic over-the-shoulder snag on the high-arcing pass from
So, was Miller even the No. 1 option on the scoring play?
”I don’t think I’m ever the No. 1 option,” Miller said,
smiling. ”I was a good one, though. I was open.”
Miller has learned plenty just by observing Gore, who has run
for five straight 100-yard games.
Gore has provided advice on everything from preparation to how
to line up before the snap so his eyes are in the right place.
”I know he really wants to do it,” Gore said. ”He’s proving
people wrong that he can’t do it.”