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

score.

”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

it.”

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

hurt.

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

the pros.

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

switch.

”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

date.”

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

Alex Smith.

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.”