He lined up at fullback. He lined up at defensive tackle. He also lined up as a wedge blocker on special teams.
The 6-foot-5, 293-pound athlete entered the 2012 season as a defensive lineman put was quickly given the “fullback/defensive tackle” position designation after proving himself as a valuable short-yardage blocker in the preseason.
In San Francisco’s exhibition finale against the San Diego Chargers, the 49ers coaching staff repeatedly called power running plays to see if the defensive lineman could have success as a lead-blocker.
He certainly did.
Tukuafu looks back on his early experiences as a blocker and recalls blocking former teammate Takeo Spikes out of the way on a short touchdown run.
“It gave me more confidence leading up to the season,” the third-year player said following a Thursday workout at 49ers headquarters.
Tukuafu is a rare commodity in today’s specialized NFL. He not only enters the game to help the offense, he’s a member of the team’s defensive line rotation and plays a valuable role on special teams.
Tukuafu has proven to be the ultimate throwback and it has made him a popular player. Jim Harbaugh has often said that the best compliment for a professional is to be called, “A football player.” The designation applies perfectly to Tukuafu, who made 17 appearances for the 49ers last year in the regular season and postseason.
Being a versatile, team-player is a huge sticking point for Tukuafu.
“I do take a lot of pride in it,” he said. “If it’s in short-yardage or goal line and they call a play that I’m in and I get to run out there, I take a lot of pride in that.
“I’m trying to do my job with the blocking scheme and even when I get a rep on defense, it’s the same thing.”
Tukuafu relished the opportunity to impact the game in so many ways last season. Now that he’s preparing for his third playing season with the 49ers, having a unique role on the team is a lot less daunting.
“I feel more comfortable with the plays and understanding the whole scheme of things,” Tukuafu said.
During the team’s ongoing “Football School” sessions, Tukuafu changes sides of the ball on a daily basis. For one practice, Tukuafu goes over walk-throughs with the offense and runs short-yardage plays with the unit for the entire day. Twenty-four hours later, defensive line duties take over and Tukuafu spends his time with the defensive unit.
To avoid any confusion, Tukuafu wears a black practice jersey. He even has time to practice in the special teams portions of practice.
Defensive line was Tukuafu’s natural position in college at the University of Oregon. Although he wasn’t drafted in 2010, the 49ers signed him to the practice squad. Tukuafu appeared in two games as a defensive lineman in 2011, but had his season cut short to a season-ending wrist injury.
Tukuafu’s big break took place last offseason with Harbaugh introducing him to a role at fullback. It was an easy choice for the defensive lineman to make. At first, Tukuafu had to learn plays on the fly and then quickly execute them at practice. He tried memorizing plays in the huddle, but it wasn’t an easy task.
Things are much different in the 2013 offseason, his second year with an offensive role.
[ PHOTOS - FOOTBALL SCHOOL ]
“Now, you start to understand the whole scheme and where guys are coming from,” said Tukuafu, who is learning how to read defensive alignments and adjust to the blocking techniques of San Francisco’s offensive line.
“I’m still learning,” he said, “but I do feel a lot more comfortable.”
Tukuafu is poised to maintain his short-yardage duties. He really doesn’t see any need to compete for a full-time blocking job.
“We have, I think one of the best fullbacks playing right now,
The two-way playing will continue this offseason for Tukuafu. He spends time every day catching passes from a JUGS machine to improve his hands should he ever be thrown a pass by
He is also keeping alive a long-standing tradition from 49ers defensive linemen.
Tukuafu starts every practice by playing catch with teammate
“We’re keeping it around, bombing the ball 50 yards,” Tukuafu said.
Quarterback duties won’t be in the cards any time soon for Tukuafu, but he is prepared for upcoming training camp battles for his blocking and defensive line duties.
“It’ll be a competition either way,” he said. “We drafted a lot of guys, it’s nothing new to me. I come in with the same mentality every year. There are no guarantees.
“Best man wins.”
Until that time, Tukuafu will continue to do what has helped him get this far.
“Just keep learning.”