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Rookies Begin NFL Chapter

Posted May 10, 2012

Suitcases outnumbered players by the time the 49ers locker room cleared out Thursday afternoon. Veterans who had just participated in the team’s voluntary Football School session were out. In were the rollup suitcases and duffle bags with various college logos.

Rookies reported to 49ers headquarters for their first day as professional football players, many of them packed a good amount for the three-day rookie minicamp set to begin on Friday. Following physical exams and a brief tour of the locker room, the NFL newcomers faced the press.

I’m just happy to be here,” said fourth-round pick Joe Looney, a guard out of Wake Forest, who was neatly dressed in slacks and a black collared shirt. “I’m ready to compete and I’m excited Coach Jim Harbaugh has given me this opportunity to come play for San Francisco.”

Fellow rookies spoke in a similarly grateful tone as one after the other came through the team’s media work room to discuss their soon-to-be-embarked careers in professional football.

Perhaps Oregon running back LaMichael James said it best, “Football is football. It might change a little, guys might be bigger and stronger, but you’re going to progress. It’s just like going from high school to college; you’re just beginning a new chapter.”

With that chapter beginning, six of the team’s seven draft picks have signed four-year contracts with the team. First-round pick A.J. Jenkins has not signed yet, but will attend this weekend’s rookie minicamp.

The 6-foot, 192-pound Illinois wideout passed up an opportunity to receive his sports management degree on Saturday so he could get ahead in his next endeavor.

“I wanted to be here for my teammates,” said the team’s No. 30 overall selection. “I figured I could walk any time. I wanted to get in my playbook. I wanted to be around the team and the coaches. It was a sacrifice I had to make.”

Jenkins said he’s moved completely to the Bay Area, where he hopes to soon train with 49ers Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice. The duo has even discussed training together. Jenkins wants to take part in Rice’s legendary hill training in the South Bay.

“I want to run it with him, I’m not really challenging him,” said Jenkins, who’s been training in Jacksonville, Fla., in preparation for the three-day camp. “You can’t challenge ‘The G.O.A.T.’ at what he does. I want to see how it feels; I want to work out with him.

“Hopefully we’ll do it soon.”

For the mean time, Jenkins will look to learn the 49ers offensive system while getting familiar with his new teammates.

Jenkins isn’t alone in that regard. Looney, too, is eager to get to know his fellow rookie teammates better.

“I think it’s amazing,” the 6-foot-3, 309-pound guard said of this year’s draft class. “I got to see LaMichael James play a lot at Oregon, he’s a great running back.”

“A.J. Jenkins is a phenomenal wide receiver. He was taken in the first round, so you know I’m just trying to block for LaMichael and help Alex Smith complete some passes to A.J.”

Looney won’t miss offseason practices for the same reasons as James, who will graduate from Oregon on June 15 and can’t fully join his teammates for Organized Team Activities and Minicamps until that day. Despite Looney graduating last December with a degree in history, the Wake Forest product will have to wait to fully join the team because of a different reason, a foot injury.

Looney suffered the setback at this year’s Senior Bowl which will prevent him from fully participating this weekend. Instead, Looney will join teammates for walk-thru periods. The mauling guard already has a great idea of what to expect from the Bay Area though. Looney trained for the draft with former 49ers offensive lineman Jeremy Newberry and felt it was very beneficial.

“He was a real good guy to get to know,” Looney said. “He told me all about the area and it’s cool to know somebody who played here and was your mentor also.”

Looney also got familiar with all-time 49ers leading rusher Frank Gore, who shares the same personal trainer in Miami, Fla. The two spoke periodically, but Looney hopes to grow a greater relationship with Gore in the Bay Area. He also hopes he’ll be responsible for opening Gore’s running lanes in the near future.

Across the board, the 49ers rookies shared admiration for their new teammates. Jenkins spoke of his Randy Moss Minnesota Vikings jersey and wanting the veteran wideout to sign it for him. James, too, spoke about Gore’s impressive talents.

“I think I can learn a lot of things from the veteran guys. I think Frank Gore is the best running back in the league,” James said. “With me coming in, I can learn. I think that’s the most important thing for me to do right now, sit back and watch how those guys operate.”

The veterans won’t be around this weekend as only rookies can participate. However, it won’t be long until they’re fully a part of the team’s offseason program.

For now, it’s all about making the best of having the coaches’ focus solely on the rookies.

“I think first impressions go a long way… It’s going to take time and I know that,” James said. “I’m willing to work hard. I’m going to give 100-percent effort and that’s all you can expect from me right now.

“Hopefully down the road I can be a great player here.”