On the spot: Isaac Sopoaga

These are the critical days of Isaac Sopoaga's career with the 49ers. Everybody knows the amiable Samoan is big and tough and fantastically strong. But what has that got him so far in the NFL trenches? Sopoaga has to show he can be more than just an ox taking up space in the defensive interior, and now's the time to do it with Aubrayo Franklin sidelined and Joe Cohen showing he's worthy of a job.

With Franklin out probably until the season opener with ligament damage in his knee, Sopoaga is right back where he ended last season – as a starter in the middle of San Francisco's defensive front.

He needs to make the most of it during the upcoming preseason, because despite his obvious strengths – no pun intended – Sopoaga's berth on the roster is anything but guaranteed.

That's because the 49ers, after making it perfectly clear that Anthony Adams didn't fit their ideal of a nose tackle in San Francisco's envisioned 3-4 defensive scheme, went right out in free agency and spent $6 million to sign Franklin, who has experience in the system but wasn't a starter in his first NFL four seasons.

Don't get Sopoaga started on that one.

"Ah, I don't want to talk about that, you know?" Sopoaga said Tuesday. "I mean, I understand if they bring somebody (in) that would fit right in the system, but if it was just for whatever… "

Sopoaga's voice tailed off. He knows he still has work to do to be the big guy the 49ers need to anchor their defensive front, but bringing in a free agent seemingly comparable to him and then handing that veteran the starting position … well, that was sort of a slap in the face.

But it tells everybody that the 49ers want, need and expect consistency at the point of their defensive attack. And Sopoaga hasn't been consistent in the two seasons he has played for the Niners after sitting out his rookie year of 2004 with a back injury.

His technique is still raw, and even though he weighs 334 pounds and can hoist 535 pounds on the bench press, he can not get by on size and power alone.

When asked if consistency and technique are the two things he must improve upon, Sopoaga said, "Absolutely. Back in college, I didn't know no technique, everything was all muscle. Now it's a matter of doing the right technique, doing the right thing so we can do what we want up front."

Doing the right thing isn't something that comes naturally for Sopoaga, who didn't begin playing football until his final years of high school. Back then he was something of an athletic marvel – a 282-pound safety who earned his league's Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior at Samoana High in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

And that's what continues to make Sopoaga an intriguing player, even if he still remains a little rough around the edges. As 49ers coach Mike Nolan says, "He is very athletic and strong. I don't know if he has a lot of football in his background, but he has enough. He just has to play more consistently."

That consistency is what appears to be getting in the way of Sopoaga's progress.

As Nolan said, referring to what the Niners need from their nose tackle in general and perhaps even Sopoaga in particular, "Aubrayo Franklin is not a finesse player. He has quickness and can move, but his strength is to hold the point. He is a good, wide, strong body that plays well when he plays. He is real consistent. That is the game he plays. Isaac has the athletic ability to be a little bit of both, and you could use him a whole lot of ways.

"But the guys around you have to be able to rely on you. If you're not accountable to where you need to be, then the other guys don't know how to play. They have to play slower. If I'm expected to be on the left, and you're on the right, and I want to go play fast, all of a sudden I see you on the wrong side, I've got to stop. It is things like that that can happen with guys."

Translation: It's a mental game, too. And big guys have to think on their feet. Sopoaga sometimes has gotten lost in the heat of action.

"You have to know where your alignment is," Sopoaga said. "I just have to do everything 110 percent all the time and have less mental errors and don't beat the team."

And that's what it comes down to for Sopoaga, who has made some incremental progress the past two years, recording 28 tackles each season. Last year, he began to display a sniff for the football, recording the first 1.5 sacks of his career to go along with a forced fumble, fumble recovery and two passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage.

Cohen is a nice young player who has flashed some talent during camp, but he is just learning the nose tackle position after being predominantly a defensive tackle in college. He looks like he could be a comer.

And, perhaps significantly, Cohen is a fourth-round draft pick of the Nolan regime. Sopoaga is a remnant from the final Terry Donahue draft.

Perhaps coincidentally – and perhaps not – the first words out of Nolan's mouth Tuesday when he was asked about Sopoaga were, "He was drafted by the other group."

So Sopoaga has that working against him. Apparently, he has not proven himself entirely worthy to the new group. That's what it usually means when a free agent and fourth-round draft pick are brought in at the same position where a roster incumbent already resides.

And time may be running out.

When SFI asked Sopoaga if he saw it as more of an opportunity or a responsibility to perform with Franklin out, he said, "It's more opportunity for me, and for me to be responsible to be that guy. Since he's down, I have to do something."

For Sopoaga, most definitely, that's the bottom line.

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