By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SANTA CLARA — To the outside observer, referring to a player as a member of “the practice squad” is like giving that player a congratulatory handshake, but it’s not all that firm. You’re here, sort of. Must be good because the team wants you around. But exactly how much does the team — in this case the 49ers — want you — in this case Al Netter?
That’s the view from the outside. Here’s the view from the inside.
“Al is smart, he fixes problems,” 49ers offensive line coach Tim Drevno said of the 2006 Cardinal Newman graduate who is on the 49ers’ practice squad as an offensive guard-tackle. “As a coach you love guys who can tell just one time to fix something. And then they do it. Al loves to be coached. He is a coach’s dream.”
“Al’s a team guy,” Drevno said. “He’s very intelligent. You tell him to keep his eyes up, his back flat, his cleats on the ground and he does it. He has all the characteristics to excel at this level. All he needs is a true opportunity and that opportunity will come.”
It was that last sentence that caught my attention and prompted me to ask a question I had no idea I would ask when I left for the 49ers’ facility Thursday morning.
“So, if a 49ers offensive lineman went down this week in practice, could Al step in and start this Sunday?”
“Yep,” Drevno said. “He's good to go.”
Just to make sure, I dragged it out a bit.
“So, you wouldn’t worry, be concerned in the slightest?”
“Nope,” Drevno said. “Al would be fine.”
Well, now that was different. Stories about players being on NFL practice squads contain words like “maybe” and “could be” and “you never know.” Practice squad players, commonly, are shrouded in gray, somewhere between being in the NFL and not. Al Netter is not wearing one of those gray shrouds. And a lot of it has to do with the wake-up call Netter received last May during the 49ers’ Organized Team Activity. Netter was on the offensive line with linebacker Aldon Smith across from him. Netter had heard a lot about Smith’s explosiveness, power and speed.
“It's one thing to hear about it or see it on television,” Netter said. “It's another thing to witness it first-hand.”
Netter paused. It wasn’t a story that gave him a lot of joy.
The ball was snapped.
“I came out passive,” he said.
“He basically ran over me,” Netter said. “That was my first taste of explosiveness in the NFL.”
Netter, 23, learned quite quickly that being passive is about the quickest way to get your ticket punched for a swift exit from any NFL training camp.
“Hesitation will kill you,” Netter said. “Playing in the NFL is like playing in an All-Star Game every week.”
Netter rose up and accepted the challenge, just as he did for Paul Cronin at Newman, offensive line coach Adam Cushing at Northwestern and now Drevno. Once he was too light (225 pounds) and now he isn’t (310). Once he was a guy Northwestern took a gamble on and then he became an Outland Trophy candidate his senior year. Once he was an undrafted free agent and now he is one of 10 offensive linemen on the 49ers (three of them on the practice squad). Once he had people guessing if he would be strong enough to push around 300-pound guys.
“I still weigh the same (321 pounds) as when I first reported to the 49ers,” Netter said, “but now it’s redistributed. Fat has turned to muscle.”
Hitting the weight room five days a week, Netter now bench presses 425 pounds. Which has produced tactile results.
“I can now deliver a punch harder,” Netter said. That would be a legal punch, by the way, one delivered to the chest area of a linebacker or defensive lineman. The NFL is not a cotillion but a collision and Netter said he is improving his ability to collide.
“It’s the little things you learn at this level,” Netter said. “Like when I’m on the left side of the line. I punch out with my right hand and then bring about my left hand to control."
Game day for the players on the 53-man roster is Sunday, but game day for the 49ers’ eight practice squad players is Wednesday. That’s when the scout team runs the 49ers’ starters through drills and plays. It’s the single most important day for Netter because he gets to impress. He shows how well he can mimic the opposition — which means how close he is paying attention to the scouting reports and how well he is executing them.
And considering he is doing it against Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, against the best defense in the NFL, Netter feels his education is first-rate.
“We treat it like it’s our game day because we are taking reps against the No. 1 defense,” said the Northwestern graduate in economics. “We arrive early, study film, prepare to exercise what we’ve learned.”
Netter puts in 12-hour days. While an entrenched starter may relax for a play or two, Netter doesn’t have that luxury. He has to be on, 24-7, doing whatever is requested of him. He is a slave to the schedule and holds no disagreement with that, especially after he is allowed a moment or two in which he can let his hair down. Or leave his mouth open, after what happened two weeks ago.
“I saw it on ‘Man vs. Food’ and so I had to try it,” Netter said. “It was the five-pound burrito at Iguana’s (in San Jose).”
Netter moved his hands apart, referring to its size. It was as long as the width of his shoulders.
“I finished it in 25 minutes,” Netter said, “but I was in pain. My stomach really hurt.”
Pain is relative, of course, and Netter prefers not to think of the day that eventually will come when he’s through playing football. He has had some cursory talks with Northwestern’s Cushing about coaching in college. But those conversations never reach the formative stage. There’s still much on his plate right now. He wants to make the 49ers’ active roster. He would like to move out of the Extended Stay hotel just a mile from the 49ers training facility, a daily reminder that he is still on the practice squad.
As he sat at his locker Thursday, Netter looked across the 49ers locker room and saw Willis and Alex Smith and Aldon Smith walking around. He started doing the math.
“We have 10 offensive linemen on the team, including three on the practice squad,” he said. “If that number is relatively consistent across the league, that means there are only 320 of us (offensive linemen) in the NFL.”
Netter paused for a moment to understand that number. It appeared to be the first time Netter ever thought of his job that way.
“Only 320 of us,” Netter said. “I’m living the dream.”
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.