Two players playing brand new positions came up huge for the 49ers in the team's 17-16 preseason victory against the Denver Broncos Friday night.
At this time last year, Brit Miller was playing inside linebacker at the University of Illinois and Reggie Smith was competing as an incoming rookie cornerback.
Fast forward 12 months, Miller is playing fullback and Smith has moved to safety. But no matter where either lines up on the football field, maximum effort is always given.
In Miller's case, he's thankful for the opportunity the 49ers presented him after he was released by the Carolina Panthers before the start of training camp. The 6-foot, 243-pounder has only lined up as a fullback with the 49ers and he's played well so far.
"I was thankful for a job," Miller said. "(Running backs) Coach Rathman always talks about how you only get so many opportunities in life and even less in football and I'm trying to take advantage of my time here."
Against the Broncos, Miller capitalized on his playing time by catching two passes, both for touchdowns.
"It was amazing," Miller said of his first preseason game in the NFL. "If someone were to tell me that before the game I would have scored twice, I probably would have laughed at them. There are a lot of things I can work on, but to make plays for my teammates was a great feeling."
Miller's first touchdown came on a flat route from the right arm of Alex Smith after Reggie Smith's second quarter interception set the offense up at Denver's 3-yard line.
His second touchdown grab was much more impressive as he caught a Damon Huard pass and took it 40 yards for the 49ers final touchdown of the evening.
"They brought pressure and what needs to happen there is the ball needs to come out quick," Miller explained of his fourth quarter score. "The quarterback did a good job, I got great blocking and I was able to capitalize on it."
Once Miller had possession of the ball, the sight of green grass ahead of him caught him off guard.
"To see nothing but green grass, that's a great feeling. That run seemed a lot longer than I think it was. But to see those guys coming after me, I had to put in high gear and put it in the end zone for my team," Miller said.
On the other side of the ball, Smith had to do his best to keep the Broncos from getting in the end zone with the game on the line.
With the Broncos looking for a game-winning two-point conversion, Smith made the game-clinching play for the defense by intercepting Chris Simms' pass in the back of the end zone.
"I was glad I could contribute to the team," Smith said of his two interceptions against Denver.
Since the start of the offseason, the 6-1, 200-pound athletic defensive back has been helping the 49ers add depth to the secondary by playing safety instead of corner. Now that he's had an entire offseason under his belt, Smith is starting to feel and play like a safety.
"It really excites me that I've been able to come along this far and make some plays in the game," Smith said.
With one game and two interceptions as a safety under his belt, Smith has gotten positive reviews from his coaches. However, one thing he needs to work is making sure the rest of the secondary gets the proper play calls from the coaching staff. Personally, Smith wants to see improvements in his tackling after he saw a few missed tackles on film.
But the most important aspect of Smith's transformation is the mentality he brings to work every day. Although he can't fully shake the cornerback's perspective that lives in his brain, Smith feels like his comfort with both positions will only help his overall game.
"I've still got some cornerback tendencies, butI think I'm more of a hybrid," Smith said. "I can play corner if I'm needed to and I can do safety if I'm needed to."
For now, Smith's presence will be most valued as a safety, but having the ability to play both only makes him more important to the organization.
Quarterback CommentaryQuarterbacks Shaun Hill and Alex Smith both addressed the media on Monday and both saw areas in which they could improve after watching the Denver game film.
"Obviously, there are other things that we have to correct," Hill said. "The good news is, it's just the first preseason game and we have time to correct those things."
Smith also felt he left plays out on the field.
"Some good, some bad. Room for improvement, but it was definitely a great feeling to be out there and be playing again. It's been awhile, too long," he said.
Although both quarterbacks feel as if they didn't play to their potential, there's little question that they are unaware of what coach Singletary is looking for in the position.
"I think he wants someone to go out there that is really going to set the tempo for the offense, move the ball and keep us going and stay level headed out there," Smith said. "I think the main thing is to execute the offense.
"In the end though, it's about making good decisions, it's about being a sound quarterback. We want to be safe with the ball. At the same time, you have to execute the offense. I think those are some other things that will play into it."
For the second consecutive season, the 49ers will travel to Napa to practice with the Oakland Raiders. But this year, the teams will practice for two days instead of just one.
"We're going to get a lot out of it," Hill said. "We're going to get to see a totally different defense than anything we see from our guys or anything we saw from the Broncos. It'll be nice in that respect to go against somebody else and to get totally different looks than we're accustomed to getting."
Tight end Delanie Walker is looking forward to the trip too. Since being sidelined with a concussion the athletic h-back has been anxiously awaiting his return to the field. On Monday, Walker participated in his first full practice since sustaining the injury early in camp. But the timing of his return couldn't have come at a better time.
"It is a great time for me to get back," Walker said. "To actually get to go against somebody different – that's going to be great work for the team altogether."
PM Practice Particulars
The 49ers practiced in shorts and shoulder pads in the afternoon.
Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Staley returned to practice for the first time since straining his ankle earlier in camp. He participated in 7-on-7 work.
Cornerback Tarell Brown took part in the entire practice. He also had a nice pass breakup on a comeback intended for Josh Morgan.
Veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer made a nice play on a deep ball, breaking up Alex Smith's pass intended for Micheal Spurlock during 7-on-7 work.
Smith connected with Vernon Davis on a 25-yard seam route during 11-on-11 work. Davis got behind Jay Moore and hauled in the perfectly thrown pass.
The play of the day occurred when Spurlock made a one-handed catch on a pass from Shaun Hill. Spurlock stopped the slightly high pass with his left hand and then proceeded to catch it with both hands.