49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 24, 2009
Rounding out the RBs

Continuing our **ALPHABETICAL** look at the running backs ... Today's segment includes three fullbacks and one guy who could, in a pinch, play fullback.

  • Zak Keasey. 6-0, 235. A wise man once said, "Some days we are the pigeons and some days we are the statues." Last year when Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator, Keasey was the pigeon. Martz needed a small-ish fullback who could get to the outsides and make blocks on the second layer of the defense, and Keasey fit the bill. Keasey played the first six games before tearing a biceps muscle and being placed on IR. The 49ers under Martz never found a permanent replacement and went through the rest of the season without a true fullback on the roster. By contrast, the new regime takes the fullback position very seriously. In fact, when I spoke with Jimmy Raye after he had been hired in January, he said the first order of business would be to find a "square-backed" fullback who could "bloody some noses" in the hole. That's not Keasey's forte and it's why he's a statue this season. Still, he is well-liked by coaches and there's a possibility he could make the roster on his special teams skills.
  • Brit Miller. 6-0, 243. Like Keasey, Miller has been converted from college linebacker to NFL fullback. Which means that he's probably not ready for prime time but that he might be a worthwhile developmental project. If Miller shows skills in training camp, he has practice squad written all over him.
  • Moran Norris. 6-1, 250. Norris spent the 2006 and 2007 seasons with the 49ers, and his lead blocking was critical in Frank Gore's 1,695-yard season in 2006. Even when Norris was in Detroit last season, Gore referred to him as "my fullback." Which is to say, Gore feels much more comfortable behind Norris than he did Keasey. Norris is a throwback at a position that is quickly disappearing. He has deltoid muscles the size of bowling balls. Indeed, he lifts the same weights as the strongest offensive linemen on the team. He is not a fluid pass catcher, and he has a meager 2.4 yards-per-carry rushing average over nine seasons. In other words, Norris is built for one thing - blocking - and Raye promises to use him heavily in that way this season. Barring injury, he is a lock to make the 53-man squad.
  • Michael Robinson. 6-1, 223. I have to admit a bias here. I like Michael Robinson. He's a smart and gregarious guy who, as a former quarterback at Penn State, is accustomed to dealing with reporters. In fact, he said he even likes talking to reporters. Having said that, however, I don't think he's a natural running back. The position is all about instincts - either you are born with them or you're not. Robinson seems to struggle with the short-yardage carries he has primarily been given over the last three seasons. Last year, he averaged 2.6 yards a carry. Robinson's strength instead is catching the ball out of the backfield. He also played receiver at Penn State, and that's evident by how well he moves in space and how quickly he gets up field after catching the ball. In contrast to his puny yards-per-carry average, he averaged nearly 12 yards per catch on 17 receptions last season. Only three other running backs with 10 or more receptions had a higher average.

    Robinson also seems to be the perfect fit at the oh-so-popular Wildcat position. The 49ers tinkered with this a few times last season but never had the rip-roaring success out of the formation that made defenses sit up and take notice. A couple of big plays early this year certainly would help the offense. Finally, there's special teams. With Keith Lewis gone and Jeff Ulbrich not getting any younger, Robinson is the odds-on favorite to become the team's special teams ace this season. Throw in the fact that he loves contact and could play fullback in a pinch and Robinson seems un-cuttable.

  • Kory Sheets. 5-11, 208. Sheets is one of the most intriguing newcomers to the 49ers because he gives them something they don't have at running back - a home-run hitter who runs a sub 4.4 40. He rushed for 1,131 yards on a subpar Purdue team last year, and as anyone who has perused his YouTube clips can attest, a lot of those yards came on long, back-breaking runs. He also is an experienced kick returner, averaging 18 ½ yards per return last season. Another bonus is he's not a featherweight; at 208, he's about as heavy as Glen Coffee and Frank Gore (during the regular season anyway) and team officials think he can pack on a few more pounds without compromising speed.

    But where do you put him? The 49ers are a team that traditionally has had three running backs and a fullback on the roster. The top three RBs on the team are Gore, Coffee and, more than likely, Robinson. Sheets likely would be safe on the practice squad considering that all 32 teams passed him up multiple times during the draft. After all, no one has plucked Thomas Clayton in two seasons. Still, if Sheets makes a splash in the preseason - and he certainly has the skill set to do just that - the 49ers might not feel as secure. Sheets will be one of the more interesting players to follow this summer.

-- Matt Barrows

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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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