Miller giving 49ers a new weapon out of backfield
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.
Particularly by 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman, a former star fullback during San Francisco’s Super Bowl dynasty who seems to be rubbing off of the team’s new fullback of today.
“He's not very smart. He should have kept the football," 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, who take a 7-1 record into Sunday’s showdown of first-place teams against the 6-2 New York Giants.
Miller, San Francisco’s seventh-round draft pick, is 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 in a Week 2 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
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 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, but now is becoming a steady contributor in San Francisco’s improving offense.
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 pre-draft 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, who won two Super Bowl rings and seven NFC West championships while playing for the 49ers from 1986-1993, when he paired with halfback Roger Craig to give San Francisco a dynamic backfield. Rathman had 2,202 career rushing yards and 320 career receptions, including 73 in 1989 when he led all NFL running backs.
"Typically,” Rathman continued, “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."
Niners two-time Pro Bowl halfback 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 quarterback 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 rushed for 100 yards or more in a team-record five consecutive games – with Miller sometimes leading the way as an improving blocker.
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."