By Len Pasquarelli
92.9 The Game/NFL reporter
New Orleans – Surrounded by more prominent teammates – like tailback Frank Gore, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and cornerback Tarell Brown, among others – San Francisco starting fullback Bruce Miller didn’t exactly draw a big media crowd at Monday evening’s media session here.
Then again, the two-year veteran, who was born in Canton, Ga., and played for the now-retired legendary Mike O’Brien at Woodstock High School, is pretty accustomed to getting lost in the crowd.
“People probably don’t understand how important (Miller) is to our offense, to what we want to do and who we want to be,” said Gore, who drew a considerably bigger crowd to his interview session. “But he has the mentality we want to (project) as a team – a tough, no-nonsense, fundamentals guy, who is really strong-minded. I can understand more people not knowing about him . . . but it’s strange.”
Appropriately enough, it’s been a long, strange trip here for Miller, who has started in 21 of his 31 regular-season appearances in two seasons with the Niners. Miller was a linebacker/tight end at Woodstock, but played four seasons as a standout defensive end at Central Florida. He was an all-conference defender four straight seasons for the Knights and was the Conference-USA defensive player of the year as both a junior and a senior. But the 49ers, who chose him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft (211th prospect selected overall), had other plans for him.
“In training camp (as a rookie in ’11), they started me off as a fullback, but things were a little up in the air,” recalled Miller, who recorded 38 ½ tackles for loss and an equal number of sacks during his final three seasons at UCF. “It was like they could flip me back (to defense), if I couldn’t cut it at fullback. But I wanted to make it work. And it did. If you’d have told me four or five years ago, that I’d be playing fullback in the NFL, I’d had said you were nuts. And if you’d have told me I’d be playing fullback in the Super Bowl . . . I don’t know what I would have said.
“But, you know what? If you want to play in the NFL, and it was always a dream for me, ever since I started playing, you do what you have to do.”
Miller, 25, has posted just 32 “touches” in his two seasons, and just nine of those have been rushing attempts. But teammates and coaches agree he is integral to the San Francisco offense and to the physical reputation that the 49ers want to project. During the regular season, he played 46.3 percent of the club’s offensive snaps – an admirable workload, given that the position is growing toward extinction in the NFL, and that the San Francisco attack skewed more toward a “spread” set once Colin Kaepernick assumed the starting quarterback job – and was on the field for 30 or more snaps in seven games.
Even with the emergence of Kaepernick and the “spread” offense, Miller’s quota has actually increased in the postseason, where he has participated in nearly 60 percent of the club’s 126 offensive plays. In the 49ers’ comeback victory over the Falcons in the NFC championship game, Miller played 35 of 51 snaps, nearly 70 percent. The perception is that the emphasis on the “spread” would cut into his playing time, but that hasn’t been the case.
“You look for ways to get your good players on the field, get them involved,” San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “And he’s a good player. He helps us in a lot of ways.”
True enough, even with the “spread” offense, Roman has devised ways to utilize Miller and his skills-set. There have been occasions, with Kaepernick in the “pistol” set, that Gore and Miller have aligned almost in an “L”-shaped formation that has been difficult for opposition defenses to figure. Regarded as a solid lead-blocker, the 6-feet2, 248-pound Miller has improved his pass-protection skills as well, and the staff clearly feels comfortable with him. In playoffs wins over Green Bay and the Falcons, he has authored some fairly aggressive blocks.
“A tough (guy),” offensive guard Alex Boone allowed on Monday night.
Speaking of tough, having to face a Falcons team that was his favorite franchise when he was growing up, even with a Super Bowl berth on the line, was hardly an easy chore for Miller. But as evidenced by his successful transition from defense to offense, Miller, who still has a ton of family members in the Canton area (“I’m really the only one who left,” he joked), was more than up to the task.
“They’re a tremendous team,” Miller said of the Falcons. “I’ve got a lot of respect for them. But we did what we had to do.”
For Bruce Miller, the most unlikely of fullbacks, that’s kind of become a mantra.