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Harbaugh Sets Pace at 49ers OTAs

Posted May 30, 2012



You can’t miss Jim Harbaugh at a 49ers Organized Team Activity. He’s the one wearing a black 49ers hat, always accompanied with a long-sleeved black microfleece shirt tucked into dark khaki pants.

But if you didn’t know Harbaugh’s preferred coaching attire, you could certainly see and hear his presence throughout an OTA session.

For one, Harbaugh yells out each period of practice, from “individuals!” to “stretch!” All the major commands come from the head man. And secondly, perhaps most important of all, Harbaugh, 48, jogs from drill-to-drill, setting the desired tempo for each day on the practice fields.

“He leads by example,” said rookie safety Trenton Robinson, a sixth-round pick who has taken reps with the first-team defense. “He wants his players to play fast, go hard and jog to every drill. He’s out there doing it, so if your head man is doing it, it just falls down and everybody else is going to be doing it.”

Movement and tempo are keys to the 49ers offseason program, but so is volume.

Instead of going through plays on one practice field, the 49ers coach has split up the team into two groups that go over plays on adjacent fields.

Harbaugh, an avid baseball fan, considers it to be like a baseball team’s spring training split-squad games.

Harbaugh believes segmenting the drills “maximizes everybody’s reps because people get better at football by playing football.”

Robinson agrees.

“It’s awesome. The only way you can get better is through experience,” said the 5-foot-9, 193-pound safety who made four bowl game appearances for Michigan State. “It might not be game-time, but it is for us, we’re rookies. We see the route combinations and we gain experience from getting reps.

“There’s no other way to learn.”

So far, Harbaugh sees players like Robinson making the most of their opportunities.

“It’s real valuable,” the head man explained. “Those guys that are competing for those spots really think it’s valuable, and so do we. C.J. Spillman has done a very nice job. Trenton Robinson is getting a lot of reps… They all benefit and they’re all working very hard to find a role.”

Finding a role for reserve players like defensive lineman Will Tukuafu has been a welcomed challenge for Harbaugh and his staff. This summer, the 6-foot-3, 293-pound lineman has taken reps at fullback.

This week, however, Tukuafu donned a red No. 92 jersey, the color worn by members of the offense.

“We were kind of shocked to see that red No. 92 jersey, I thought he was a traitor” said fourth-year defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois with a slight chuckle. “He’ll be back, but it’s another opportunity for him to go on the other side of the ball and get some playing time and try to help the team, too.”

Harbaugh has been pleased with the early efforts of Tukuafu and others trying to make an impact on the other side of the ball.

Furthermore, Harbaugh sees the experimental development of young players as an opportunity for them to gain additional insight on their positions, too.

“You can gain knowledge by playing the opposite side of the ball,” Harbaugh explained. “But the greater share of why we’re doing that and most of the share is to utilize a guy’s talent on the other side of the ball. Possibly find a player that’s a three-way player to play defense, offense and special teams. That’s the 98 percent of it.”

For Tukuafu, a player who recovered a fumble in his very first NFL snap last season, the opportunity has not been wasted.

“Will is doing an outstanding job,” Harbaugh shared. “Right now, we’re in the athletic portion of these practices and workouts. He’s done very well with that. I think the fun will start with him when we put the pads on.”

According to Harbaugh, cornerback Cory Nelms, defensive back Ben Hannula and defensive tackle Demarcus Dobbs have all worked on offense at times this offseason.

Even with players working at unfamiliar positions, the intent to improve upon last year’s NFC title game appearance is not lost by any means.

“It’s good to have the whole team here – everybody knew how it felt to lose the NFC Championship Game and to be one step from the Super Bowl,” Jean Francois said. “Now, everybody wants to come in and hit the ground running even though we have a limited time out here.

“It’s a plus, especially with Alex (Smith) having all the weapons to get the timing. When we roll into camp, Alex is just out there playing Madden, basically.”