Niners putting Sopoaga on IR

The 49ers hopes of plugging the porous middle of their defensive line took a huge hit Wednesday morning when general manager Terry Donahue revealed that rookie Isaac Sopoaga will be placed on injured reserve and miss the 2004 season.

Sopoaga made it through five days of training camp before leaving practice drills with a lower back problem. He attempted to get back into the flow a few times after that but it wasn't happening, and for good reason.

"He's got a broken back, in effect," Donahue said. "He has a broken vertebrae. He needs time to heal."

Now he'll be getting plenty of it. Donahue said the Niners will soon place the rookie on IR when the team is making its final roster decisions over the next few days.

"He's definitely going to go on the IR," Donahue said.

The Niners traded up in the fourth round of the April draft to grab Sopoaga, who looked to be a prime candidate to become the team's third defensive tackle – and maybe even push to be a starter – this season. After Sopoaga was drafted, the team proudly showed off college film of the 321-pounder dominating opponents in the trenches at the University of Hawaii with an intriguing blend of power and speed.

Sopoaga revealed earlier this week that the back problem has been following him around for more than four years, but he had hid it from doctors and "just kind of played with it," because, he said, "if I told them about my problem, they're going to make me sit out some games."

Make that, a season's worth of games now.

It's a major blow to the Niners – who have seen it coming for weeks – because they needed a player like Sopoaga desperately in the middle of their line, which was trampled by some of the NFL's bigger, better running attacks last year. Michael Landry, who is formidable at 317 pounds, has been a nice find, but it is uncertain how he'll hold up as a third tackle in the line rotation, and the list of viable prospects drops precipitously after him.

When asked earlier if he thought he'd be sidelined for the season, Sopoaga said he expected to miss no more than a few games.

"I'm not hoping," he said. "I know I'm going to play."

Sopoaga was wrong, and now the Niners are hoping they can find somebody – anybody – to take his place.

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