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Blossoming into a marquee NFL event, the draft held annually at Radio City Music Hall has been pegged as "Christmas morning" for football fans. The less-sexy latter rounds of the draft is a time when the average-Joe fan has long since lost interest, and television ratings are significantly down from the 'primetime' rounds. Teams are rummaging through what remains in the pool of young football talent. Not whole-heartedly expecting to hit big on a selection in the 6th of 7th rounds, NFL teams are rather looking to draft solid depth and special teams players.
General Manager Trent Baalke and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh who are both in their first year under their respective titles, collectively made a total of 10 selections in the 2011 NFL Draft. With much of training camp lost thanks to the NFL lockout, the expectations for rookies were low, especially later round picks.
NFL rookies, like a yet to be sculpted piece of clay, need time and lots of attention to be moulded into a legitimate product. With severely limited time for Coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff to prepare his team for the start to the season, many saw struggles on the horizon for 49ers' rookies. Late-round draft selections would be hard-pressed to find themselves a spot on the active roster. As the days the NFL spent locked out continued to pile up, the likelihood of a successful, productive rookie season appeared to be diminishing.
The 49ers rookie who was believed to contribute the least in the 2011 season, has in many ways done the complete opposite. Fullback Bruce Miller has shocked many with his high level of play and his immediate contributions to the 49ers. Miller has been one of the integral factors in the success and continuity of the 49ers offense.
What makes Miller's success so shocking is that this is his first year playing fullback, not once prior to this year had he played a down at the position. Miller was a staple on the defensive unit last season at the University of Central Florida, starting and playing at a high level as a defensive end. Last season, his junior year at UCF Miller totalled 63 tackles and an impressive 8.5 quarterback sacks which earned him Conference USA defensive player of the year honors.
The San Francisco 49ers took a real shot-in-the dark selecting the UCF defensive stand-out with their 211th overall pick in the 7th round of the NFL draft. Selecting Miller, the 49ers made it clear that their sole intention was to convert the former defensive player of the year to fullback. This radical decision resulted in many quizzical looks from 49ers fans at the time.
After the 49ers first loss of the season on September 18th to the Dallas Cowboys, the rookie 7th rounder got his call to duty. Veteran fullback Moran Norris had fallen victim to the injury bug and the rookie was the next man up.
Miller has done an admirable job in his new gig as fullback. He has started every game but once since the loss to Dallas, the one missed start being the Thursday night slug-fest against the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers rushing attack through 15 games this season is ranked in the upper echelon of the league at #7. Their un-relenting ground attack can in large part be attributed to the play of Bruce Miller. Though the offensive line has played quite well, as has running back Frank Gore, the offense seemed to be out of sync with Miller absent. With Moran Norris starting in place of an injured Bruce Miller, the 49ers offense struggled gravely against the Baltimore Ravens. The running attack saw limited success all throughout the game, mustering up a pedestrian 74 yards rushing, rather low in comparison to their 128.5 yard season average. Miller's true impact on the offensive unit was no more evident than on Thanksgiving as they looked completely out of character with him on the sidelines.
Frank Gore has made no secret of his feelings toward his lead blocker Bruce Miller. In many interviews, Frank Gore has openly praised the play of Miller. The man who is running behind the blocking of #49 Miller offers up the most relevant and accurate opinion in respect to the rookie's play, as he makes his living running through holes Miller busts open.
The 49ers look to have found their fullback of the future, and his immediate impact on the 49ers is more than anybody could have envisioned or hoped for. The 49ers have hit what can be considered a 'low key' homerun with Bruce Miller, as the fullback position is often overlooked by casual football fans. The responsibilities of the fullback are so vital to the success of an offensive unit, and with the ground game running rampant, Miller deserves much praise. Comparisons to the great fullback Tom Rathman have been tossed in Miller's direction. With such progression, and a high level of play in his rookie season, Bruce Miller looks like he will be a staple in the 49ers offense for years to come. Named as a 2012 Pro Bowl alternate, the league has too taken notice to Miller's superb inaugural season.
Bruce Miller has been a bright spot in the first 49ers winning season since 2002. Pending his continued growth and maturity as a player, Bruce Miller may be to the Harbaugh-era, what Tom Rathman was to the Walsh-era. We'll just have to wait and see.