SANTA CLARA — To the outside observer, referring to a player as a member of "the practice squad" is like giving that player a congratulatory handshake, but it's not all that firm. You're here, sort of. Must be good because the team wants you around. But exactly how much does the team — in this case the 49ers — want you — in this case Al Netter?
That's the view from the outside. Here's the view from the inside.
"Al is smart, he fixes problems," 49ers offensive line coach Tim Drevno said of the 2006 Cardinal Newman graduate who is on the 49ers' practice squad as an offensive guard-tackle. "As a coach you love guys who can tell just one time to fix something. And then they do it. Al loves to be coached. He is a coach's dream."
"Al's a team guy," Drevno said. "He's very intelligent. You tell him to keep his eyes up, his back flat, his cleats on the ground and he does it. He has all the characteristics to excel at this level. All he needs is a true opportunity and that opportunity will come."
It was that last sentence that caught my attention and prompted me to ask a question I had no idea I would ask when I left for the 49ers' facility Thursday morning.
"So, if a 49ers offensive lineman went down this week in practice, could Al step in and start this Sunday?"
"Yep," Drevno said. "He's good to go."
Just to make sure, I dragged it out a bit.
"So, you wouldn't worry, be concerned in the slightest?"
"Nope," Drevno said. "Al would be fine."
Well, now that was different. Stories about players being on NFL practice squads contain words like "maybe" and "could be" and "you never know." Practice squad players, commonly, are shrouded in gray, somewhere between being in the NFL and not. Al Netter is not wearing one of those gray shrouds. And a lot of it has to do with the wake-up call Netter received last May during the 49ers' Organized Team Activity. Netter was on the offensive line with linebacker Aldon Smith across from him. Netter had heard a lot about Smith's explosiveness, power and speed.
"It's one thing to hear about it or see it on television," Netter said. "It's another thing to witness it first-hand."
Netter paused. It wasn't a story that gave him a lot of joy.
The ball was snapped.
"I came out passive," he said.
"He basically ran over me," Netter said. "That was my first taste of explosiveness in the NFL."
Netter, 23, learned quite quickly that being passive is about the quickest way to get your ticket punched for a swift exit from any NFL training camp.
"Hesitation will kill you," Netter said. "Playing in the NFL is like playing in an All-Star Game every week."
Netter rose up and accepted the challenge, just as he did for Paul Cronin at Newman, offensive line coach Adam Cushing at Northwestern and now Drevno. Once he was too light (225 pounds) and now he isn't (310). Once he was a guy Northwestern took a gamble on and then he became an Outland Trophy candidate his senior year. Once he was an undrafted free agent and now he is one of 10 offensive linemen on the 49ers (three of them on the practice squad). Once he had people guessing if he would be strong enough to push around 300-pound guys.