Tom Rathman on Bruce Miller: “I don’t know if I would consider him a bulldozer as a lead blocker.”

Running backs coach Tom Rathman spoke to a group of Bay Area reporters yesterday at the 49ers practice facility. I was on a plane during this interview, but the’s Sam Lam very generously passed the transcript along to all the writers. Thank you, Sam Lam.

Here is Rathman for you reading pleasure.

Q: What did you see from the scout film on Bruce Miller and what was it like trying to convert him?

RATHMAN: I didn’t see it on film, the film I looked at. They trusted their instincts as far as the scouts on drafting the kid. He’s ours, so what do we do with him? We’re going to make him into a player. That’s the way I approach it. When we did draft him on draft day, I thought that if anybody can do it, I can do it. It was a great challenge I took upon myself – to develop a defensive lineman into a fullback. Typically players that play in line, on the line of scrimmage, don’t translate to backfield play. They’re totally different games. The intrigue, the way you approach it, the type of blocks that you have to have, and here’s a kid that never has had to block before. He’s a developing product right now. Still improving, still needs to get better. But it’s been a solid job to date.

Q: How gratifying was it to see him score?

RATHMAN: He’s not very smart. He should have kept the football.

Q: He got it.

RATHMAN: I was like “What are you doing? You keep the ball!” – ‘Well, I just forgot.’ It was a nice thing for him to have some production in the passing game in the end zone. I don’t know if he’s ever scored a touchdown before. Obviously he didn’t know what to do when he got in there. I told him to act like a pro like you’ve been there before. ‘I did coach. I gave the ball the official.’ That’s what his comment was. He’s a very pleasant kid, a good kid to work with.

Q: How long did it take for you to feel comfortable with Miller as a fullback, knowing your experience when you came into the league?

RATHMAN: I felt pretty comfortable. The biggest thing for me coming from college to the NFL was the overall speed of the game. You knew the fundamentals of the position: how to enter the line of scrimmage, your certain reads to get into the second level. That’s a lot of time these kids don’t understand when you haven’t played the position before. Earlier in the season, he had a handoff against Cincinnati and fumbled the ball on a short yardage situation. Doesn’t know how to carry the football. Hopefully he does by now. These are just fundamental things of the position that these guys have never repped before. You’re on a fast track with these kids play defensive line or linebacker, especially defense, to get them to translate that football over on the offensive side. For him, I think he’s done a great job. His athletic ability allows him to play the position. He’s a very athletic kid. I don’t know if I would consider him a bulldozer as a lead blocker, he knows how to create angles and leverage on defenders. He does a nice job on chop blocks because of his athleticism. He’ll survive in this league as long as he keeps progressing.

Q: How tough was the lockout on developing Miller?

RATHMAN: That was the tough thing about it. Typically you get a kid in the draft and start working with him pretty much after the draft when they’re able to come in here. But without any OTAs or any offseason workout program, that was a big setback. Typically you say for the rookies coming in, and I’m even talking Kendall Hunter, the lack of experience working in the offseason, trying to get them ready for real NFL football, it’s tough. The rookies are behind at this stage. Both kids have been doing a pretty solid job for us.

Q: Do you have a Bruce Miller plan?

RATHMAN: The plan was to get him ready to go. He’s got to learn the position. I didn’t even know if he could play the position. But obviously you get him in here and see what he can do athletically and say “Wow. This guy’s got a chance.” He’s a very athletic kid. The thing you say to yourself when you first get him is that you don’t know what he’s going to be when he first puts the pads on. Then you put the pads on and it’s a totally different game playing in line with all those violent collisions. That’s what you have to be. He hasn’t been exposed to it. A backer is five yards off the ball and he’s five yards behind the line of scrimmage, it’s a totally different game. He’s adjusting to it and still learning. We’ve got him on the sled a lot, getting on that sled and bang it as much as possible due to that he’s not a player that’s been in the offensive position, the fullback position. We’re a work in progress, but we’re climbing the hill so to speak.

Q: What’s the tough love approach do you have with the rookie backs?

RATHMAN: I played here when the 49ers were outstanding in the `80s early `90s – it was a high standard. It’s just like what we’re doing now and we’re winning then. There was a certain standard that was upheld when you’re in the locker room, when you’re on the field, when you’re out at practice, going out and executing in games. Those were the things that you try to teach these guys as they come in here. You want to hold them up the standards that I was held up to when I first came in here. There’s a certain way to do things and the bottom line is: you’ve got to get your job done out on the football field. It doesn’t matter what you’re up against, you’ve got to do it. There’s a certain way to do it. You teach technique, point courses, footwork that put you in a position to execute your technique or your job. Once you deviate off that, chances of winning go down. There’s a high standard, a certain way to do things and we give them everything that they need as far as to succeed. The bottom line is going off and executing. If they don’t, then I’m going to get on them. I’m going to tell them the truth. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. If they’re not doing it the way we want it done, they’re going to get it. They’re going to hear it. That’s just the standard that I’m used to; that I’m trying to emphasize to what I was held up to.

Q: Rookies are usually receptive to everything from their coaches. Is it unusual that Frank Gore is also receptive?

RATHMAN: The bottom line is that you can always get better. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you can always get better. Frank’s a really good player, really great player. He can get better. That’s the way we approach it in our room. You just can’t stay status quo, he wants to get better as a football player. There’s certain areas that he needs to get to the level back where he was last year. I’m not going to say what they are. He knows it. I keep emphasizing it. He keeps promising me, but the bottom line is that we’ve got to see it. I’m going to tell him what I think. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If it’s B.S., I’m going to tell him it’s B.S.

Q: Has it been special to have this kind of success?

RATHMAN: It’s been great being back with his organization. I had to leave for a while but I’m back and I’m happy. I think Jim Harbaugh is doing an outstanding job developing that locker room, that mentality, the atmosphere in that locker room. You can see the way the team’s play. You can come in here and work with a guy like Frank Gore. It’s special because he’s a special player. We’re just trying to improve these guys, giving them the tools to win and putting them in a position to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rookie or a 10-year vet, my approach as a coach is to coach everybody the same. You may have to spend extra time with a certain guy because of the lack of being able to retain it or understanding it. You’ve got to find out how that kid learns. The bottom line is your approach to it is to get it done on the field. And when we win, we want to dominate. We want to take guys out. We want to hurt guys. We want to win. We just want to dominate, hit them in the mouth.

Q: What’s the attitude now that you’re winning on the road, knowing that the team you played for was also strong on the road?

RATHMAN: This is Bill Walsh’s philosophy and that’s kind of where I came in the league and understood it. It’s 53 men, our 53-man roster that travels, against 200,000 people. The stadium and all the fans that are around when you go in the airport, when you got into the hotel. Obviously there are fans of the home team, so it’s that group of men going into that stadium against 100,000, 60,000 or whatever it was and that was it. You had to circle the wagon so to speak. I was lucky enough to be here when we won 18 road games in a row. I don’t know if that will be ever done again – but we’re on track right now.

Q: Are you getting better now in the running game in terms of preparation and target practices, knowing it was something you looked out for as a player?

RATHMAN: I think Frank understands it since he’s been in the system before. There’s some new concepts that we have gotten into here with the new staff, so you’re teaching those in point courses, footwork as far as that go. The bottom line is that it’s football. You have to go out and play; go out and dominate. The whole approach to the game is your mentality when you step onto that football field. It’s modern day [inaudible] years and that’s the way we approach it.

Q: Does Miller’s touchdown open up the offense even more?

RATHMAN: Now he’s a big time pass threat huh? It’s good to see him to get a player call. It’s good to see him go out and execute it, finish the play with a touchdown – the only touchdown of the game.

Q: Does it warm your heart to see him score?

RATHMAN: Doesn’t warm my heart, that’s his job.

Q: What’s it feel to see the challenge of coaching him into an offensive player come to fruition with his touchdown?

RATHMAN: It’s his job. That’s all I have to say about it. He did his job, he got a score on the play, which was outstanding because he made the catch and he scored. He did what he was supposed to do.  He made the play for us. If we put them out in that position again, I expect him to do the same thing: score. If someone is one him and he has to go up to make a spectacular catch, that’s the expectation, to go and make the play. When you get the opportunity, be opportunistic. And he has done that to date. He needs to keep cranking it up and getting better. And he does continue to keep getting better, then he has a chance.

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