Top tackle experienced speedy transformation

Growing up as a schoolboy in the small-town atmosphere of Rockford, Mich., Joe Staley could run like the wind. The 49ers' first-round draft pick was something of a phenomenon as he starred on the track and field team for Rockford High School - and would become even more of the same in a different sort of way as he followed a path that would lead him to the NFL as one of the top OTs in the draft.

It wasn't necessarily that Staley was one of the greatest sprinters Rockford High had ever seen that caught everybody's attention during his schoolboy days. It wasn't that he set school records in the 200-meter dash and as a member of Rockford's 400- and 800-meter relay teams.

And it wasn't that Staley was such a champion speedster that he placed sixth in the state in the 200 meters while leading Rockford's relay teams to the state finals in three events.

No, what set Staley apart is that he performed like an elite sprinter while all the time being caught inside a football lineman's body.

Staley stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 225 pounds. He played tight end on the football team when he wasn't running track. He stood out from - and above - the typically lean and compact sprinters whom he competed against every spring.

But that was four years ago. A lot has changed for Joe Staley since then, and the big kid from little Rockford High no longer considers himself a sprinter.

"No, I'm an offensive tackle now," Staley told SFI.

And so he is.

Staley is a very good one at that, good enough to dominate at the position during his final seasons at Central Michigan University, good enough to zoom up draft boards during and after a senior season in which he established himself as one of the nation's elite tackle prospects.

And, ultimately, good enough to convince the 49ers to trade a 2008 first-round selection to move up in the draft last month and select Staley with the No. 28 overall pick in the first round.

"The way we approached it was, 'Joe Staley's on the board,'" said 49ers personnel chief Scot McCloughan, who helped make the decision that the Niners had to make the move to grab Staley before someone else did. "My personal opinion is you never give up next year's picks, especially first-day picks, unless you feel pretty dang sure you're going to get a good football player, which we did. So we said, 'Forget about the (first-rounder) next year. Get back up there and get (Staley).'"

Staley's transformation from prep sprint champion to first-round NFL behemoth was a gradual process that took place after he was passed over by Michigan and the other big-time college programs in the area before landing a scholarship to Central Michigan.

He showed up as a freshman looking more like a basketball player than a sprinter or football standout.

"When I got to Central, I was really, really, really lanky and skinny," Staley said. "I didn't even look 225 pounds. I had to put on some weight just to play tight end."

Which he did. Despite being limited by an ankle sprain before the season began, Staley started four games as a true freshman, averaging 11.8 yards per reception. With his natural speed, and the potential to pack on significant muscle to fill out his lanky frame, the future looked bright for Staley as a playmaking tight end.

But then the coaching staff at Central Michigan changed. And when Staley came back for his sophomore season after packing on about 30 pounds to play tight end, he was in store for one of the biggest changes of his life.

"I was a good-sized tight end, about 260 pounds, and I was excited to play with (a new coaching staff)," Staley said. "Then the new coaching staff, they ran a spread offense, so they needed an athletic guy to play the offensive line for them. I was kind of a lankier kid and they looked at me and said with hard work I could make it happen. Basically, I had no choice. I got switched and was I told I was going to play right tackle."

Staley didn't fight the change. He embraced it. Particularly after he saw how it was transforming his body and athletic skill.

"It's really a crazy kind of transition that took place," he said. "I just started eating and eating and eating. Basically, I put on about 20 pounds every year."

Dedicating himself to a new position - and a new way of life, for that matter - Staley quickly realized the kind of advantage his speed gave him in the big-man's game that takes place in football's trenches.

Oh, yes. Despite transforming into a 300-pound tackle, Staley still retained some of the speed from his days as a sprinter. He could no longer run the 200 meters in 21.9 seconds like he did in high school, but he still could move faster - often much faster - than any man his size.

Not to mention all his college peers at the position. Staley - already creating quite a buzz among NFL observers with his speed and athleticism - clocked a time of 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash before pro scouts. That makes him the fastest offensive lineman coming out of college this year, and blows away the times of all the other top tackle prospects - many of them by almost half a second.

And that's what makes Staley a rare breed as he enters the NFL.

"Everything about him, we felt, strengthens our football team," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It's a position that's hard to find, especially with the things he can do. We had an opportunity to grab a guy like that so we took advantage of it. He will be an impact player on our football team. If not right away, certainly in time."

The 49ers got an up-close-and-personal look at Staley during Senior Bowl week in January, when Staley played for the South team that was coached by the San Francisco staff. It was there that Nolan, McCloughan and their crew saw what Staley could do on the field, as well as the way he conducted himself off it.

Nolan said the 49ers got to know Staley well and came away impressed with him, "not only as a football player and playmaker, but as a character (person)."

That's another aspect of Staley's makeup that was so attractive to the 49ers. He doesn't take his amazing metamorphosis for granted. He worked hard to get where he is, and he realizes that's what it's going to take to remain there.

"I think the 49ers are getting somebody who is not only a good football player, but also is a good person," Staley said. "I am the type of person that is going to continue to develop. I am a really hard worker and I love the game. You have to truly love to play football because you are going to be around it for the next 10 years of your life, hopefully, at the highest level - and I feel like that is me.

"I put in a lot of work and busted my butt to get to the position I'm at. You're not a big kid your whole life. Half of it is natural and the other half is stuffing myself and working out real hard. But having that athletic background definitely helps me. So much of the game today is speed, and having the balance and coordinator (from his sprinter days) definitely helps you as an offensive tackle."

And now, just four years removed from being a prep sprint champion, Staley is all about being the best offensive tackle he can be with the 49ers, who have made quite an investment in the belief he will be a good one.

"I never pictured my career going this way when I went to Central," Staley said. "At the time, I was just excited to play college football. When I got there, I didn't even have any goals on hoping to play. But I came in there and worked hard, put some weight on, and it has been quite a ride.

"I've always had confidence in my ability. Now I just want to come in and make an impact as a rookie. I want to prove that I was worth that first-round pick. And I will fulfill that - don't worry about that."

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