Fullback Bruce Miller was a physical presence for the 49ers on offense and special teams. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
One decision the 49ers face this offseason won’t be difficult.
Get ready to say bye-bye to Moran Norris.
Norris, the veteran fullback who began this past season as the starter, went down early in the schedule with a leg injury. In to replace him came Bruce Miller, a converted defensive end and seventh-round draft pick out of Central Florida.
Though Miller was raw, he was a physical, high-energy blocker who opened holes for Frank Gore, helped protect Alex Smith, showed an aptitude for catching the football and made plays on special teams.
With Norris, 32, now an unrestricted free agent – and Miller keeping the starting job after Miller returned from injury – figure on scratching Norris off the roster and penciling in Miller for years to come.
Coach Jim Harbaugh loves players who can block, and Miller proved he can block and help the 49ers deliver a physical pounding on opponents.
Early in the season, after Miller caught a screen pass against the Eagles, he finished the play by crushing Philly safety Nate Allen who had come up to make the tackle. Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle it was an example of “violence on the boundary.”
Miller was coached his first season in the NFL by Tom Rathman, a former 49ers standout fullback who is sparing with his praise. But he liked Miller’s constant improvement.
“I think he’s done a great job,” Rathman told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in November. “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, (but) 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.”
At 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds, Miller was a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year as a defensive end, with a school-record 35½ sacks. He was projected perhaps as an NFL linebacker.
But when the 49ers selected him in the seventh round, they believed his athleticism and tenacity could translate to playing fullback.
His defensive coordinator at Central Florida, John Skladany, told reporters after Miller was drafted that Miller is “relentless.”
“He just keeps going and going,” Skladany said in May. “You’re going to have to shoot him to stop him. If he’s going to be blocking, some linebacker is going to have a long day.”
This season, Miller started eight games and carried the ball just four times for 8 yards – with two of those short-yardage plays good for first downs – and had 11 receptions for 83 yards, including a 30-yard TD play vs. Washington.
But as a fullback, he knows his biggest contribution might be in leveling defenders and opening holes.
“I’m not looking for glory,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in December. “I enjoy blocking for Frank. That’s how I get my glory, watching him run for 100-plus yards and score touchdowns.”
The week before the 49ers met the Giants in the NFC Championship Game, Miller found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, lined up behind center Jonathan Goodwin and quarterback Alex Smith and in front of Gore.
At just 24 year of age, it might be his spot for a long time to come.