Training camp battleground: Noseguard

If it all starts at noseguard for the 49ers in their new 3-4 defensive scheme, then the team obviously has huge concerns about who'll be starting there this season, since San Francisco does not have one player on its roster who has taken a NFL snap at that all-important position.

Some skeptics who say the Niners don't have the personnel to succeed in a 3-4 system this year are looking specifically at noseguard, where there will be a hot two-way battle for the starting position this summer between youngsters Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga, with rookie Ronnie Fields coming up on the outside in the competition for playing time.

With San Francisco's first training camp practice looming Saturday, coach Mike Nolan on Thursday shooed away suggestions his team doesn't have the players necessary to get the job done at the point of attack on a three-man defensive line.

"I think we have three good prospects there," Nolan said, hopefully.

That said, Nolan really can't be sure who will be manning the position when the 49ers open the season in September. The noseguard position might be the biggest area of the unknown on defense, if not the entire team.

"As far as being set on who it is … there's certainly competition going on there," Nolan said.

The job entering camp tentatively belongs to third-year veteran Adams, who started 12 games at defensive tackle last year. Adams has the quickness and instincts to play the position, but at 5-foot-11 and 299 pounds, he lacks optimum size.

That's not a concern for the massive, tree-trunk-legged Sopoaga, who checks in at 6-2 and 321 pounds. Niners coaches were impressed by Sopoaga during spring drills, and Nolan appears to be leaning toward the second-year player as the best fit for the team and system at the position.

The problem is, Sopoaga spent his entire rookie season last year on injured reserve and his technique still is raw and unrefined. He did, however, play some noseguard variations in college at Hawaii, and he may be the team's most intriguing noseguard hopeful.

"It would have been nice if Isaac had played more last year, because he's certainly done a great job so far, but we want it in pads," Nolan said. "Adams has played the position, has the experience, has the upper hand on the other guys from that standpoint, and he has done a good job also."

Adams is a fighter who will go all out to prove he's the man for the job, and his experience as a NFL starter could give him the edge if he can use his quickness to fill gaps and his low leverage to absorb blockers in the middle without getting overpowered in the run game.

If that happens, look for the 49ers to be running in Sopoaga and the 6-2, 323-pound Fields quite often. The 3-4 scheme won't work if the Niners can't stop the run, and the noseguard most hold up formidably in the middle to allow other defenders to flow to the ball and make tackles.

"They're different players, I'll say that," Nolan said of the three contenders. "They're not all the same kind of guys. Isaac is more of just a powerful, hold the point, just a stout strong man, whereas Anthony Adams moves around quite a bit to make his plays, and we will see where Ron Fields is as we go forward. Ron has done a good job, but we'll see as he matures where he really fits in the best."

Nolan knows one thing: Somebody's got to fit. His new defense is depending on it.


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