Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ice in the Middle

By Taylor Price

Not playing last week in New Orleans crushed Isaac Sopoaga. But even though he was sidelined with a minor injury, the 6-foot-2, 320-pounder was part of the team in spirit.

With the consent of coach Jim Harbaugh, Sopoaga went out with his teammates before the game and led them through his signature dance, “The Haka,” which he learned while growing up in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Standing in a sea of teammates, Sopoaga’s energy and passion could be seen from the Superdome’s rafters. But somehow, the player affectionately known as “Ice” in the 49ers locker room managed to cool himself down after his motivational tactic.

“My heart, my soul, was with our guys,” said the eight-year pro, who will play nose tackle for the 49ers this season after playing defensive end for the last three. “I thank Coach Harbaugh for letting me do that. It made me feel like part of the team on the field.”

The game’s outcome didn’t go the 49ers way, but you can assume there will be an even livelier performance from the 49ers on Saturday if Sopoaga makes his preseason debut against the Oakland Raiders.

Sopoaga has been working through an injury that has limited him in camp and has recently returned to practice, impressing his new coaching staff in limited action.

“He’s really picked it up here in the past couple days and he looks to be healthy,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He seems to be ready to go.”

Sopoaga also seems to be enjoying his new assignment on the defensive line. After all, it’s a familiar position. Sopoaga played his first four NFL seasons as an interior defensive lineman and has played the last three seasons as a five-technique in the team’s 3-4 defensive scheme.

But with Aubrayo Franklin signing a one-year deal with New Orleans late in the offseason, Sopoaga was asked to move back inside.

He did it graciously, without questioning it.

“I’m loving it,” Sopoaga said of the position change. “It’s my job. Taking two to three guys on – that’s nothing new. That was the same thing when I was playing end. I was double- and triple-teamed by tackles and tight ends, too.

“Whatever comes my way, I’ll be well prepared for it.”

The 49ers like what they’ve seen from Sopoaga so far, however, his absence has opened the door for third-year defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois to gain valuable experience. Jean Francois, who lined up as the starting nose last Friday, has maximized those opportunities.

Fangio praised his defensive line group for setting the tone for the defense and said his defensive linemen have four players capable of starting. The 49ers will only line up three starters which figure to be Sopoaga flanked by Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.

And that makes Jean Francois the line’s equivalent of an NBA team’s sixth-man.

“In my mind we have four starters out there,” Fangio said. “It doesn’t really matter which three run out there for the first play. They’re a good, hard-working prideful group.”

Much of that description stems from Sopoaga, an easy-going, hard-worker in his own right, who brings his hard hat to work every day.

“Ice doesn’t really say much,” explained Jean Francois, “but when he does, you know what he means.”

So when Sopoaga’s teammates saw their emotional leader lining up to lead his dance in pregame warm-ups, most of them knew what it was about.

“We know he’s not doing it just for fun,” Jean Francois said. “He’s doing it because he’s really into it and so are we.”

Whether Sopoaga of Jean Francois lines up with the starters on Saturday, the 49ers defense will look to build off a strong start to the preseason. They forced three, three-and-outs to start last week’s game and hope to follow suit at Candlestick Park in a 5:00 p.m. kick-off.

Notes and Quotes

Perhaps the most intriguing note of the day involved the practice participation of rookies Colin Jones and Bruce Miller. Both practiced at the other sides of the ball. Jones, a safety drafted out of TCU, lined up at wide receiver. Miller, a college defensive end selected to play fullback, lined up at outside linebacker during scout team periods. Jones, however, participated in team periods and even had a few passes thrown his way. Fangio said the moves were for evaluation purposes.

Fangio spoke of playing time for his starters. The coordinator hinted that it might pick up against the Raiders. “We had some guys last week that played nine or 10 snaps, we had some guys that were in the 15-range, we had other guys that were in the 20-range, we had other guys that were 30, 40 or above,” Fangio said. “So as those 10s go up a little bit, the 30s and 40s come down a little bit. We haven’t discussed that yet; we’ll sit down either tonight or tomorrow to kind of get a guideline for that.”

After stretching his lead in the quarterback competition on Tuesday, Alex Smith followed up his strong week of practice with another solid day in team periods. He fired two, 50-plus yard touchdown throws, caught by Ted Ginn Jr. and Braylon Edwards respectively.

Second-year cornerback Phillip Adams intercepted Colin Kaepernick for a pick-six, during a team period on a pass thrown behind its intended receiver.

Safety Dashon Goldson also came up with a turnover, intercepting new quarterback Josh McCown for his first takeaway of training camp.

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