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Isaac Sopoaga Anchors SF Defense

Posted Jan 31, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – At 6-foot-2, 330 pounds, San Francisco’s nose tackle secretly wishes he could launch a deep ball to Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis or any of the 49ers play-makers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Isaac Sopoaga, San Francisco’s ninth-year veteran lineman, has a cannon for an arm. And although he’s a stout defender in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defensive scheme, the coordinator believes Sopoaga might have the best arm on the team.

“He has a lot of fun all the time,” the 49ers defensive coordinator detailed. “He loves to throw the ball around. He’s really a frustrated receiver or running back or a quarterback; he wishes he was a quarterback.”

Sopoaga displays his deep throws every day to start practice, typically warming up with fellow defensive linemen with cross-field throws. At Thursday’s availability, Sopoaga estimated he could throw the ball 70-73 yards standing still and 80-85 yards with a running start. According to defensive tackle Ray McDonald, Sopoaga was clocked throwing a baseball at 95 miles per hour.

With an arm like that, it’s no surprise Sopoaga longs to showcase it in an actual game.

“I hope one day Coach Harbaugh and G-Ro (offensive coordinator Greg Roman) would use me so I can bomb the ball,” the 49ers nose tackle said with a grin.

Sopoaga hasn’t played a snap of offense in 2012, but did catch an 18-yard pass last season in a regular season game where he lined up as a fullback in the 49ers jumbo package.

Those who know the native of Pago Pago, American Samoa, truly embrace everything he brings to the team: Leadership, energy and unyielding passion for the game.

Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula didn’t mince words on his starting nose tackle.

“I love Isaac, I love him,” Tomsula said. “I love his family. I love everything about him, as a man, as a person, as a father, as a football player, as a friend, he’s tremendous. He represents Samoa, they should be so proud how he represents his island.”

Sopoaga believes it’s just part of his responsibility as being a member of the 49ers.

“It’s who we are, a D-line family,” he said. “The D-line unit takes care of one another. For us older guys, we have to look out for our younger brothers.”

On a defense with six Pro Bowl performers, Sopoaga is largely the unforgotten man.

However, that’s not the case inside San Francisco’s locker room.

“He’s the No. 1 run-stopper,” explained one of those Pro Bowlers, safety Donte Whitner. “Anyone who takes on two guys who are 300-plus pounds on each and every snap, he’s the rock of your defense. You can look at a lot of defenses around the National Football League and they don’t have that. In the 3-4, you don’t have a great defense if you don’t have a great nose tackle.”

The 49ers have a great nose tackle in Sopoaga, who moved over to the position at the start of last season from a defensive tackle spot in the 3-4 scheme.

By sliding inside, the selfless decision by the player known simply as, “Ice,” allowed McDonald, a sixth-year defensive tackle, to enter the starting lineup.

“Ice is a great guy,” McDonald said. “Ever since I got into the league he took me under his wing. He did the same thing with Ricky (Jean Francois), Ian (Williams), Tony (Jerod-Eddie) and those guys.

“He’s been a great help. He’s real family-oriented and just a good person.”

Family-oriented might be an understatement. Sopoaga keeps the team together with liveliness and enthusiasm for the game.

It’s something he learned playing next to Bryant Young for the first four seasons of his 49ers career. Young, a modern-era nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, showed Sopoaga the work ethic necessary to enjoy a long-lasting career in the NFL.

“Bryant Young is a great leader, a great example,” Sopoaga said. “I kind of follow his role, so hopefully I’m passing it down, the 49ers tradition and spirit to the young players.”

Tomsula worked with both players in 2007. The defensive line coach’s first year with the 49ers was also Young’s final season of a 14-year career.

“Bryant Young is a special guy and so is Isaac,” Tomsula said, adding that both shared the same work ethic and passion for helping teammates. “He’s just an awesome teammate. Isaac, I have so much respect for him, the way he works. Not only physically, but mentally. He cares about his teammates, it’s really terrific.”

Perhaps Tomsula’s favorite aspect of his nose tackle is his meticulous note-taking in meetings. In fact, San Francisco’s defensive line coach has kept Sopoaga’s personal notes and looks back on them from time to time.

“I show people all the time,” Tomsula detailed. “He writes notes, and then he re-writes them. You could actually hand them out as manuals, it’ so detailed. I save them. Oh, I have them, the ones he’ll let me have. Some of them I look back on.”

At one point of the regular season, Jim Harbaugh asked his lineman for his notebook to share with reporters. Besides copious details on opponents, schemes and alignments, there were illustrations to separate the notes.

“That shows his passion for the game how much he loves to work,” McDonald said. “He really loves to play. When you have a guy who takes notes like that it shows that he’s really into it.”

As the anchor to Fangio’s defensive line, Sopoaga’s role has gone through some adjusting in 2012. With opponents looking to spread the 49ers out into a nickel defense and not test San Francisco’s base run defense, Sopoaga played less snaps than in previous seasons.

However, you wouldn’t know that though if you saw “Ice” at practice.

“Isaac’s just a fun-loving guy,” Fangio said. “Everyone loves being around him. He’s just a key part to our defense, both from a tangible standpoint in the way he plays the nose and the intangible standpoint, just being one of the guys.”

So forgive Sopoaga if he’s having the time of his life in his first Super Bowl. He can’t help but enjoy the moment.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s truly an honor, a blessing to be here with my family, the San Francisco 49ers.  I feel spoiled.”

While coaches and players raved about Super Bowl practice tempo being top-notch, Sopoaga was much to blame for leading that charge.

“Wednesday’s practice,” Sopoaga began, “it was amazing. This is week, what, 26? The way we practiced yesterday felt like Week 5 in the regular season. We’re so anxious, so looking forward to this game.”

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