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Minicamps, OTAs and training camp, oh my. The NFL "offseason" can seem like practice overkill. But when you hear new 49ers linebacker Dontarrious Thomas talk Xs and Os, you understand why the endless reps are so crucial. Thomas is battling Jeff Ulbrich for the starting job at "Ted" linebacker. Thomas is younger, bigger and more athletic than Ulbrich. But Ulbrich knows the position like the back of his hand. That's been Thomas' task during the spring practices - picking up a defense that is more complex than the one he was in in Minnesota.

Q: Was there a similar position to Ted when you were in Minnesota?
DT: Our Sam linebackers did a lot of the same things. Especially when we ran like an 'over' defense. I played that position. In Minnesota, I played all three positions.

Q: When you came here, how much catch-up was required to play Ted?
DT: The one thing I had to learn was how to be patient and slow down. In a 4-3 scheme, it's more gap responsibility. Here, you have gap responsibility. But you also have to be able to read the lineman and play off of them. There's that learning curve. And also that I've always been in the Tampa 2. It's been Tampa 2, Tampa 2, Tampa 2. I'm used to spot dropping (in pass coverage.) Here you have to know route progression and know what the receiver is going to do on his route.

Q: So there's more analysis and thinking on the fly here than in the Tampa 2?
DT: Yeah. In the Tampa 2, you're usually just the middle read guy. You're like the middle safety. You protect the middle of the field. Here, depending on the route, you might have that vertical or you might have to break off and wall that No. 3 (receiver) coming across because we do a lot of mixed coverages. Like we'll play a half or a quarter on one side and on the other we'll play a totally different defense. So you have to know what your responsibilities are.

Q: Is that why these OTAs were so valuable? Because you have to learn all these different situations?
DT: Definitely. I mean, depending on the formations and what they give you, your responsibilities can totally change. This definitely has been helping me out as far as catching me up and giving me some reps and getting familiar with the defense. Once you get familiar with the concepts and everything, then you learn how everybody fits. And then you know, 'Ok, I know I've got a safety so I can be fast over the top, or I know I've got this player so I can be slow.' You know where everybody fits. This defense - it's a lot more mental. There's more to learn. In different situations, your responsibilities can change on the fly. By practicing and repetitions, they train your brain to react really quickly because that first minicamp, that first practice and even the second and third - it was tough. It takes practice and repetition.

Q: What was that first minicamp like?
DT: There was a lot of catch-up. I was a little slow in my reads. I'm still working through that. I definitely feel I'm progressing. I know more of what I'm doing. That first minicamp I was like, 'I know I need to make this play,' but I was unsure about where I need to be. Now my confidence is getting there and I'm starting to be relaxed and starting to get a feel of the defense.

Q: How important is it to get in sync with the guy you're playing next to, whether it be Patrick Willis or Brandon Moore?
DT: I'm in a good situation here where Brandon Moore has played and he knows the position. He's a veteran guy. I can talk to Jeff. He's a veteran guy. He knows the position. Also, Patrick Willis is one of the great guys and he knows the position. Everybody comes together and pitches in and helps out.

Q: Will it take training camp and full-contact practices to really tell how far you've progressed?
DT: Yes, definitely. Once you get those pads on, it's a whole different story. That's when you have to master the physical aspect as well as the mental aspect of it.

Q: Is that when your size and strength should give you an advantage?
DT: You definitely have to have some leverage and some size, and I can pride myself on being a pretty strong 'backer. It's one of those things where coach Singletary, he drills you and drills you. He drills into you the fundamentals and technique, so I'm sure I'll definitely be confident that he's made me into the best 'backer I can be.

Q: How big are you right now?
DT: About 245.

Q: Is that your playing weight?
DT: By the time training camp's over, you lose a little weight. I usually play around 230, 240.

Those of you waiting for the supplemental draft may have to wait until July 2009. So far, no players have announced themselves available for the supplemental, meaning there's a very good chance there won't be one at all. What does that mean? A sllloooowwww July news period becomes even sssslllloooowwwweeeer.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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