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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.

PD: Let's move on to Kendall Hunter's breakout moment.

JEAN FRANCOIS: Kendall's first breakout moment is when I saw him in camp, and he was the hardest damn thing to take down. We kept hitting him, hitting him, hitting him and this dude wouldn't fall. Camp was his breakout moment. Then when we got to the game, we didn't have no second guessing. We knew we had us a running back behind Gore.

PD: What about Bruce Miller?

JEAN FRANCOIS: The Lumberjack? I knew he had it in him. Coming from D-end and moving to fullback — I knew he got it. He liked hitting. He liked bringing the hits, and at the same time he's an athletic fullback. That was a plus for Alex (Smith), having another weapon that he could swing the ball out to.

PD: Miller's touchdown catch in Washington was a wheel route and he effortlessly caught the ball over his shoulder in the end zone like he was Jerry Rice.

JEAN FRANCOIS: When he did that, I was happy. I damn near met him at the sideline. I was trying to run into the end zone but I didn't want to get no flag, so I met him at the sideline. I said, &‘This is something you're supposed to do often. This is something you're supposed to do every damn time.'

PD: What about Chris Culliver? What was his breakout moment?

JEAN FRANCOIS: It was his first pick — against Tampa Bay. When he first came in, I looked at him and I said, &‘This guy is going to be one big key to our defense.' I can say he almost looked like Deion Sanders. It's going to take him a while to get the skills down, but that's Culliver's swagger. He wants to be like Deion and I don't blame him. But when he caught that pick in the Tampa Bay game, from that day on I just told him: &‘If you see it, it's yours. Take it.'

PD: In the Detroit game he covered Calvin Johnson one-on-one and held him to seven catches and zero touchdowns.

JEAN FRANCOIS: When he did that to Calvin Johnson, I was like, &‘Yeah, you have full respect from every guy.' Now we can go out there and put you on an island against any top receiver and we won't have no worries. We can rush up front and get ourselves a sack because we know we've got a good cover guy like him.

PD: The first day of training camp, Culliver said if his transition to cornerback didn't work out, hopefully he'd get a chance at safety. Cornerback is working out for him, and he's as confident as any player in this locker room.

JEAN FRANCOIS: Being a college kid, you don't really know. You're going to second guess yourself, plus you're going against professional athletes. You're playing on another level, so you're not really sure how it's going to fall out. But he did good. Plus I knew he was from an SEC school, so I was like, &‘This is a cat I've got to take under my wing.'