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.
PD: Do you remember the first day of training camp? (Smith) was working on the sleds and (defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio kept making him do a particular drill over and over again because Smith wasn't doing it correctly. Then 30 minutes later in a scrimmage, he hit Frank Gore hard. Gore slapped him in the face and Smith slapped him right back, and the whole team went silent for a few seconds until Gore shook his hand. Then the team went nuts.
JEAN FRANCOIS: You could say that was his breakout moment, because a lot of times when you hit a franchise guy like that, a lot of people probably in other organizations don't like to get hit. Yeah, you're going to have a pause. But when you've got a guy like Frank Gore, who will slap you up and tell you, &‘Good job, good hit,' or something like that, that's where the respect comes in.
SMITH (he decided to chime in on this subject): You've got to stand your ground. You've got to let people know that you're not going to be ran over — that you're a man just like they're a man. You ain't gonna take nothing. It's all respect at the end of the day. It's a physical game and I'm physical, and I was proving my point.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here