Rumph taking a liking to safety

Part of Mike Rumph's hip bone now is grafted into his right forearm, and all is well with the rangy fourth-year veteran. A key figure in the 49ers' revamped defensive plans for 2005, Rumph is back practicing with the team – but not at the cornerback position he played during his first three NFL seasons. The Niners appear determined to turn Rumph into a free safety, and he is going along with the plan. "If it takes us (to) winning for me to play safety," he said, "then that's what I have to do."

That's what Rumph is doing this week as the Niners conclude their spring workout schedule with their final organized team activity practice today.

After talking it over a few times in recent months with head coach Mike Nolan, Rumph sat down with defensive coordinator Billy Davis and secondary coach A.J. Christoff last week about making the switch from corner to safety. Once he was cleared by doctors to return to practice, Rumph took the field at his new position and has been taking snaps with the regular defense.

It makes a lot of sense for the 49ers to get a look at what Rumph can do now at safety while they continue to search in vain for a legitimate option to fill that major void in their defense.

While it may weaken them on the edge – Rumph was showing fine form and progress at cornerback before his fractured forearm wiped out his 2004 season in early October – Rumph could be a better option than any player the Niners might be able to find in the second wave of free agency that is weak in free safeties.

"I am encouraged by what I've seen," said Nolan, who noted the Niners won't really know if the move is what's best for the team until the pads go on during training camp in July. And, after all, the team's new regime is only now getting its first look at Rumph on the field.

But they've seen what he can do on film, and athletically, "it's worth a shot," Nolan said, noting Rumph's size, skills and hitting ability make him look like a natural for the safety position.

In some ways, Rumph says, he already is.

"I played it a lot in high school," Rumph said. "That's how I went to college – off a safety scholarship. My first day there (at the University of Miami, where he became a star three-year starter at cornerback), they said, ‘Let's try corner.' I never went back."

At the college level, coaches often move their most highly-skilled defensive backs to corner because of the impact that position has on the game. That also is true in the NFL, but it takes a special breed of athlete at that level to play corner, where Rumph's 6-foot-2, 205-pound stature makes him stand out among today's smaller, quicker, sturdily-built players at the position.

While Rumph was coming along at corner – "I still feel like I'm a great corner, and I'm still trying to master the position," he said in May – his size and rangy skills might make him a better fit in the 49er's new 3-4 scheme at safety.

The Niners certainly need a player there with Rumph's potential, particularly if they don't bring in another veteran between now and the end of July, which is beginning to appear as how the situation will play out. The Niners currently have Dwaine Carpenter, Mike Adams and Arnold Parker learning the ropes at free safety and, frankly, that won't get it done, as far as finding a front-line player at the position.

But Rumph could be that player without the 49ers having to look any further.

Rumph said he appreciated Nolan's honesty when he first met the new 49ers coach after he was hired. "He didn't hide it. He cut to the chase and came right out and asked how do I feel about the safety position," Rumph said. At the time, the decision was made to keep Rumph at corner, with the possibility lingering a switch could be made later in the spring.

It's now later in the spring, and after a successful bone graft surgery April 1 that promoted the final stage of recovery in his arm, a healthy Rumph returned at a position nobody should be surprised to see him entrenched at when the 2005 season begins.

It's going to take some time. After spending the better part of the past eight years learning the finer details of cornerback, one of the most difficult – and important – positions to play at the NFL level, Rumph must shift to a position which relies less on technique and timing and more on athleticism, feel and instinct.

But he certainly looks the part.

"Mentally, it's a big difference," Rumph said. "You have to know everything that's going on on the field. Physically, you've got to be able to make open-field tackles, but that has always been one of my strengths. You know, I don't want to blow my own horn, but with my size and tackling ability, I always felt like. … I can cover the field pretty well, too, as far as running sideline to sideline."

Sounds like he's taking to the position already. That ultimately could fill a big hole for the 49ers, even if it leaves a new void that will demand attention come summer.

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