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Breakout moments for 49ers' rookies

  • Ricky Jean Francois eyes get big as he sees the opportunity for a sack on Colt McCoy in the 2nd quarter. McCoy slipped away for a short gain. The 49ers beat the Cleveland Browns, 201-10, in a 2011 game. (PD FILE, 2011)

SANTA CLARA — If the 49ers are going to beat the New Orleans Saints this Saturday, they're going to need big games from their big rookies.

They're going to need Aldon Smith to sack Drew Brees. They're going to need Kendall Hunter to share carries with Frank Gore, who may or may not be healthy.

They're going to need fullback Bruce Miller to block for both running backs, and they're going to need cornerback Chris Culliver to cover the Saints' top wide receiver, Marques Colston, one-on-one frequently.

Before this season began, most people expected almost no contributions from this rookie class. The logic was two-pronged — most of the 49ers' high draft picks were switching positions, and because of the lockout they didn't have a full offseason to learn their new spots and get acclimated to the team. They were projects who didn't have enough time to develop.

Obviously, that wasn't the case. Smith already is one of the elite pass rushers in the game and one of the most important players on the 49ers. Hunter, Miller and Culliver all have been key contributors.

How did this happen? When did each rookie break out? The Press Democrat asked Smith when his breakout moment came.

“It hasn't happened yet,” Smith said.

That's all he wanted to say on that subject. Surely, that's all coach Jim Harbaugh would have wanted him to say. Harbaugh doesn't encourage public personal reflection. It's a team game and the most important thing is the next game — that's his M.O., and his rookies follow it to a T.

So The Press Democrat sat down with Ricky Jean Francois, the wise man of the 49ers. He graciously discussed each rookie's breakout moment.

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT: What was Aldon Smith's breakout moment this season?

JEAN FRANCOIS: Detroit — that was his breakout moment. He was back to being Aldon. It was like he was the same kid at Missouri, just more grown, more mature, and more into the NFL — not a college guy. Like, you couldn't tell that he was a first-year guy.

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