Seek-and-destroy fullblocker

Moran Norris was the guy doing the dirty work in front of Frank Gore during the 2006 season. So whenever Norris stepped onto the field with the 49ers, there wasn't much uncertainty about what to expect from the bruising 250-pound fullback.

"Each week, he has been called upon to do a lot of that seek-and-destroy blocking," coach Mike Nolan said.

Norris is good at the seek part. He's even better at destroying. The sixth-year veteran spent his first season with the 49ers blowing up defenders in front of Gore, paving the way for an innumerable collection of big-gainers this season by the NFC's rushing champion.

And he enjoys doing it almost as much as he's good at it.

"Moran, he's physical and fast, and he likes to do what he do," Gore said.

With Norris, it's simply elemental. True fullbacks are a dying breed in today's NFL of intricate offenses, so to keep working under that job description, Norris has developed the proper mentality as well as the proper physicality.

To be sure, they both go hand in hand.

After four seasons with the Houston Texans that included 18 starts, Norris found a certain comfort level with the 49ers in 2006 after signing a one-year contract with the team as a free agent during the offseason.

Now he just goes out there and bangs heads with reckless abandon, and part of the beauty of it is opponents know what's coming.

"Being a fullback, you kind of have to have that swagger on blocking," Norris said. "You just have to have that thought in your head. You can't have no doubts. That's your job and that's your role. You've just got to know your role."

That role doesn't include many opportunities with the football in his hands. Norris had carried the football just one time in his first five NFL seasons, a figure that stood firm until the 49ers handed it to him twice during their 26-23 overtime victory at Denver to end the season.

He ploughed forward for four yards each time, including a crucial conversion on a third-and-1 play in the third quarter. Norris also turned a short reception into a 32-yard catch-and-run for a third-quarter touchdown that sparked San Francisco's comeback from a 13-3 halftime deficit.

That was Norris' second touchdown reception of the season, an indication that the 49ers may plan to get him more involved in their offense as the team moves forward.

Or maybe not. Blow-out blocking is what Norris does best, and he's practically a throwback to another era.

Which is precisely one of the reasons he signed with the 49ers this spring.

After 2003 Pro Bowler Fred Beasley - another search-and-destroy type - fell out of favor with Nolan and running backs coach Bishop Harris last year and was run out of town, the 49ers were looking for a blocking-type fullback to add a physical dimension to the position and challenge holdover starter Chris Hetherington for the starting role.

That sounded like a pretty good fit for Norris.

"Some teams try to fade (fullbacks) out and make them obsolete," Norris said. "But down here, they use the fullback a whole lot. When you come to a new team, though, it's very hard for a fullback to even try to make the team because you have to learn the playbook, learn a new system and you have to impress the coaches. It's a very tough thing to do. You have to stick with it and keep positive thoughts in your head."

Norris wasn't convinced he'd get a long enough look to make it with the 49ers this summer. There was a perception that Hetherington and Norris both were competing for the same roster spot.

But when the 49ers pared down to their final 53-man roster in September, both had a place on the team.

And with Gore emerging quickly as a productive workhorse - and the 49ers quickly determining that their strength on offense is a power rushing game - Norris quickly rose from the inactive list to a prominent role clearing space in front of San Francisco's exciting second-year featured back, who finished the season with a franchise-record 1,695 yards rushing.

Norris can take at least some of the credit for that.

Norris was inactive for San Francisco's first two games as the 49ers went with Hetherington's experience to start the season, but Norris had switched places on the depth chart with the incumbent by Week 3.

The 49ers integrated Norris into the attack more and more as the season progressed, and Gore thrived behind him as one of the league's elite rushers.

"Moran has done a very good job and I expect him to continue," Nolan said. "That's what has kept him in the lineup. I think he's done a lot for us. He takes pride in it, and he takes pride when Frank Gore does well. A good fullback feels that way."

Despite his unexpected opportunities in Denver, Norris knows the occasional use of his athleticism - he also has 10 career kickoff returns to his credit - is not how he's going to make his living with the 49ers.

He's a fullblocker, if you will, and fullblockers never rest.

"That's what I've mainly done in the NFL, and I've done a lot of it," Norris said. "I think my blocking has contributed to this team. But I don't think I've mastered it or got it down or anything like that. Nobody's perfect. There's always something you can learn, something you can always improve. When you have that thought, you're going to keep getting better."

And Norris is going to get the opportunity to keep getting better with the 49ers. The team has been so pleased with his contributions that it recently agreed to terms with Norris on a three-year contract extension that will keep with San Francisco through the 2009 season.

That will give him time for a whole lot more seek-and-destroy missions.

"It means a whole lot," Norris said. "It lets me know I'm a value to the team. I like the franchise and I'm glad to be able to deal with them. I like the running backs and the coach, and I'm glad I'm going to be here."

That's a sentiment shared by several 49ers, particularly the one who lines up behind him.

"Moran, he's a good fullback, man," Gore said. "Coach Bishop challenges him every week to get the job done, and he does his best to do it. You got to like playing with a guy like that."

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