Jim Harbaugh has often said the biggest period of growth a player can make is from year one to year two.
In the case of the San Francisco 49ers’ sophomores, nearly two-thirds of the 2011 draft class saw significant playing time as rookies on a division-winning team. At 49ers Organized Team Activities, the second-year players are using early NFL experiences to propel them to greater performances.
One of those contributors, 6-foot, 199-pound cornerback
Isolated on the perimeter against some of the league’s top wideouts as San Francisco’s nickel defensive back in 2011, Culliver grew comfortable within Vic Fangio’s defense based on his successful games against players like DeSean Jackson, Calvin Johnson and others.
On Tuesday, Culliver used that knowledge in one-one-one wide receiver-defensive back drills at 49ers OTAs.
Matched up against several of the 49ers top wideouts, Culliver quickly caught on to the deep routes being run against him.
“In most situations,” last year’s third-round pick began, “you’re not going to face consecutive 20-yard routes unless you have full-max protection or something like that.”
Because of all the long routes being run against him in succession, Culliver anticipated a shorter route might be coming his way in the near future.
He was right.
Just as a rookie wide receiver
However, it wasn’t such a big deal to a player like Culliver who registered 36 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception as a rookie.
“That’s not a story,” downplayed the young cornerback on his OTA interception.
In Culliver’s mind, the opportunity to impress coaches is important, but even more so is using the summer to maximize reps with the first-team defense when they arise.
“That’s all I’m trying to do, just get better,” said Culliver, wiping the sweat off his face from a two-hour OTA session. “I’m going to keep working hard, period.”
It appears Culliver’s efforts aren’t going unnoticed.
Asked to highlight some of the younger 49ers who’ve stood out through the team’s voluntary offseason practices, Harbaugh said, “We could stand here and talk for a while about that. But, really pleased with the way our guys are working right now.”
The NFL Coach of the Year went on to acknowledge the play of his defensive backs, Culliver included.
“I think our whole secondary is really performing very well,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve had a lot of passing work; a lot of throwing work has been the emphasis. Culliver has really made strides.”
An aggressive mindset like the one Culliver had on Tuesday’s interception is a trait the young defensive back wants to keep in his game. Playing with tenacity helped Culliver cover kicks as a rookie where he totaled five special teams tackles. It also gave him a great deal of confidence.
Now as Culliver draws from experience, he’s doing it in unfamiliar territory: OTAs.
With no OTAs in 2011 due to the NFL’s work stoppage, Culliver and his fellow second-year teammates are making the most of a brand new situation.
“Last year it was straight into camp and you didn’t know anything,” the former South Carolina cornerback said. “You didn’t know the playbook, or anything. Now I feel a lot more comfortable in my plays.”
Comfort has allowed Culliver to continue being competitive.
“It’s you versus him,” Culliver said of his one-on-one drill outlook. “And it’s the best because you’re not really prepared. You can’t tell what the offense is doing or the formations they’re in. they’re just running routes and you’ve got to play them and let it come to your favor.
“You showcase your talent, compete and that’s what it is.”
And at this time of the offseason, the young cornerback has the feeling that OTAs are starting to trend towards being more competitive. That’s happening just in time for next week’s mandatory three-day minicamp.
One-on-one drills against the receivers, plus, two-minute drill scenarios to conclude recent OTAs appear to signal the start of training camp being around the corner.
“It’s definitely doing that, getting us ready,” Culliver said of the team’s recent two-minute drill work. “That’s pretty much what football is all about; just prepare yourself to get ready. You have the voluntary workouts, OTAs and then minicamp, training camp and all those things prepare yourself for the games. It makes you as ready as possible.”
In addition to the two-minute scenarios, local referees have been brought into practice to officiate certain periods of OTAs.
“That’s been a real help for us,” said Harbaugh, who intends to have the officials out next week for veteran minicamp. “Something that we started late in the season last year, and we’ll continue to do it.”