Rumph coming back only as a cornerback

Mike Rumph spent exactly one afternoon at cornerback in 2005 before he tore the plantar fascia in his foot during a September practice. Two days before, Rumph had been demoted as the team's starting free safety and moved back to cornerback, where he'd spent his first three NFL seasons. When Rumph returns this spring to battle for a job in San Francisco's 2006 secondary, it will be strictly at cornerback, with his days at safety decidedly behind him after last year's failed experiment.

Rumph was placed on injured reserve at the end of September last year with the injury. When talking this week about Rumph's role with the team this year, coach Mike Nolan made it clear that the team made a mistake when it attempted to make Rumph a safety to get San Francisco's best four defensive backs on the field in 2005.

That experiment lasted only three games, a stretch during which the 49ers allowed an astounding 1,107 passing yards with Rumph supposedly responsible for being San Francisco's last line of defense.

"I just didn't think he had the skills to play safety," Nolan said. "You have to have vision. Everybody likes to look at athleticism, but athleticism is about half the battle to play safety or corner. You have to have a mindset to play corner and you have to have a mindset to play safety. I just didn't think that his mindset at safety was the right one. His angles to the ball and his vision on things weren't where they should be. He's more suited to play corner. The demands at corner suit his physical skills and his ability to play football much better. He will be a corner. I will not put him at safety again unless we have injuries that stick in there."

One of Nolan's first personnel moves when he took the 49ers job last year was to ask Rumph to attempt the transition to free safety, where the team had a huge void and Rumph seemed like a natural with his rangy style and hitting ability.

Rumph showed off his pad-popping style with some big hits, most notably against Terrell Owens in Week 2, but as a free safety who must be responsible for reading plays and being the center fielder of a defense, he was totally lost.

"I didn't see the progress in however many months it was that he was at safety to lead me to believe that he was going to make the transition smooth," Nolan said. "Every now and then he'd come up with a big hit, but every now and then, too, they'll be a big play on us. I just think that he's better suited to be on the outside, which is where he was most of all the time. When we moved him inside we needed to find some players to get our best four on the field. I thought at the time that he was one of our best four. As time went on the safety spot just wasn't the best for him."

In his three 2005 starts, Rumph never got his hand on a pass, but he did force a fumble and had 10 tackles. When announcing on Sept. 26 that Rumph would be moving back to cornerback, Nolan did not designate Rumph a starter, but it was assumed he'd be the likely replacement for Ahmed Plummer, who was going to have ankle surgery later that week.

As it stands today, Rumph would not walk back into the lineup as a starter. Shawntae Spencer is the undisputed starter at right cornerback and, while Plummer is unlikely to return to the left cornerback post he has handled since 2000, Rumph would be challenging young holdovers Bruce Thornton and Derrick Johnson at left corner, along with another top talent the 49ers appear likely to bring in.

"I see him competing with those guys," Nolan said. "As you well know, we placed so many people at the corner position and the safety position this year that it'll be interesting to see who will come out of it. We have a lot of guys. I love the fact that we will add to that competition through free agency and in the draft. That's the goal right now, but we'll see how that pans out."

Rumph won't be just battling for a regular job, he'll be battling for a roster berth. After starting 13 games and showing some promise in his NFL sophomore season of 2003, Rumph played in only two games in 2004 before suffering a season-ending broken arm. After his inauspicious and abbreviated trial at safety, Rumph doesn't have much to show for his last two seasons.

Nolan and his crew aren't exactly the types to wait around, and the rookie contract Rumph signed in 2002 is up after this season.

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