Woods vows: 'I'm going to make it'

The last time we saw Rashaun Woods, he was a rookie receiver streaking lithely down the sideline on a 59-yard catch-and-run against the world champion Patriots, striding into an uncertain future on the next-to-last play of the 49ers' 2004 season. The 49ers made questionable use of their first-round draft pick last year, but as the team's new coaching regime begins making public decisions about its roster in the upcoming week, you can be sure Woods is one player who'll be part of the 2005 plans.

And Woods, after his disappointing NFL debut season, plans on making the most of a fresh start with a new set of coaches evaluating his skills and, hopefully, calling his number.

"I mean, I take playing football seriously," Woods said in an interview with SFI.

Woods realizes there are people out there who may have wondered about that last year after he failed to make much of an impact on a weak offense while failing to earn playing time in front of a mediocre group of veteran receivers ahead of him on the team's depth chart.

But just for the record, Woods said he is committed to the game and fulfilling the potential he displayed during a record-breaking college career at Oklahoma State.

"Football's my life," he said. "I mean, a lot of things matter. I have a wife now (Woods was married during the season last year), and I'm probably going to have kids and stuff like that. But football's big. It's always been big. I always make it big with my family."

Woods then paused for a moment, reflecting on how he intertwines the importance of football with his close-knit family, which includes younger brothers D'Juan and Donavan, who followed him into college stardom at Oklahoma State.

"It always meant something to be a great football player," Woods continued. "I didn't come here just to take the money and sit on the bench and ride it out and then have a happy life. I'm nothing about that.

"It's all about going out and being a great player. I don't want to come back home with, ‘Well, oh, yeah, he had an OK career with the S.F. 49ers.' I want to go back like, ‘He's the Man.' That's basically what I want to do. That's the kind of player I want to be."

Woods realizes he has plenty of work to do to become that kind of player. He also realizes many NFL observers at the moment might consider him closer to being a first-round bust than that kind of impact player.

Woods vowed to stick around the 49ers facility during the offseason to get bigger and stronger, things he realized he must do during the sporadic playing time he did get during San Francisco's 2-14 season.

In retrospect, Woods' expected surge into the starting lineup as a rookie never materialized because it never really had a chance to get started.

Woods was slow to grasp the pro system during early spring minicamps – persuading the Niners it might be wise to bring in veteran Curtis Conway as insurance on a young receivers corps – and then he subsequently missed three weeks of training camp drills with hamstring problems that considerably hampered his development.

He began the season fifth on the depth chart, didn't catch his first NFL pass until October, didn't start one game all season and didn't see any playing time at all at receiver in several games.

Needless to say, for a player who had shattered every meaningful Big 12 receiving record during the previous four seasons, that wasn't just an adjustment. It was a shock.

"It's probably the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with," Woods said. "I mean, it hurt me to go out on the field and have it be the least I've played in years and years. It's very difficult, just for the fact I really feel like I can play at this level and I hate the fact that I (didn't) contribute more. To come from being a guy who was basically idolized, and then trying to work his way all the way back up from injuries and stuff like that…"

Woods didn't finish the sentence. There's no reason to look back now. He'll no longer be playing for a head coach who mystifyingly didn't put him on the field more often after San Francisco's season already had become a lost cause.

Don't try to tell Woods this – or the team personnel and fans who were expecting much more from him in 2004 – but Woods' rookie season wasn't a total wash. He did lead the team with a hefty 22.9 average on his seven receptions – a figure boosted by that final catch when he dashed away gracefully from New England defenders.

After shaking off his injuries and developing in the system, it appeared Woods could have done more of that sort of thing during the final month of the season if the Niners would have made an effort to get him involved in the offense.

Former coach Dennis Erickson often commented in December how good Woods looked in practice, and said on a weekly basis that the team had to find more playing time for the rookie. Then the games would come around, and it didn't happen.

Woods just went with it, because there was little else he could do. But we can remember one practice late in the season when, on a crossing route, Woods reached back across his body in mid-air to make a spectacular one-handed grab of a pass thrown behind him. It received a chorus of exclamations from teammates and coaches alike, and it was the kind of thing he displayed often in the final weeks of a doomed season.

Except in the games.

Woods will get his opportunity to change that this season under a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator and a new receivers coach – Jerry Sullivan – who is considered one of the NFL's elite mentors of young receivers.

The slate has been wiped clean. Woods, ostensibly, will get another chance to become the team's No. 1 receiver – or, at worst, a starter – in his sophomore NFL season.

He isn't going to let the disappointment, frustration and growing pains of his rookie year be wasted in vain.

"The fact that I'm in the situation that I am, it has forced me to work a lot harder than I initially anticipated I could even do," Woods said. "Just because of where I was set back, I had to do this much more than what I actually thought I could ever do. And in turn, it made me a better player and a better person for it.

"To me, football is pretty much everything. And in the NFL, you get judged. Right now, as a NFL player, you get judged on how good you play on the field. And, believe me, I'm not at all thinking about hanging them up. That's for sure. I'm never going to hang it up until I get too old. I'm going to make it. And there isn't anything that's going to stop me."

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