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Monday, September 03, 2007

Sopoaga knows word for big play

In Isaac Sopoaga's native Samoan language, sole! is a word expressing a positive affirmation, like getting a new job or finding a $20 bill on the street or preparing to eat a favorite meal.

Or, in Sopoaga's case, shedding the block of the center and tackling the running back for a loss.

"That's awesome," Sopoaga said of the feeling of making such a tackle. Asked for a comparable word in the Samoan language, he said there are several possibilities but settled on sole, pronounced so-lay.

Sopoaga had three such tackles for losses in the 49ers' third exhibition game at Chicago as he made the most of his extended playing time at nose tackle with the absence of starter Aubrayo Franklin.

Franklin is expected back for the regular-season opener a week hence against Arizona. Nevertheless, Sopoaga earned his place in the defensive-line rotation with a strong training camp and preseason.

"My goal is to help the team," he said. "It's just working hard, doing everything I can in order for me and the team to win."

Franklin injured a knee early in training camp and Sopoaga started all four exhibition games. Now in his fourth year with the 49ers, Sopoaga seems to have found his niche at nose tackle in the team's new 3-4 defensive front. At 6-foot-2 and 334 pounds, that's a large niche indeed.

"His comfort level has really picked up," said defensive end Bryant Young, who has seen Sopoaga's progress since he came to the 49ers in 2004 from the University of Hawaii. "He feels a lot more comfortable at that position. You can tell he's having a lot more fun with it and he's making a lot more plays."

In a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is asked to "hold the point" and not give ground to blocks from the center and guard, often in the form of double-teams. Sopoaga plays what is called "two-gap" technique, meaning he is responsible for the gaps on either side of the center.

"Which is tough," he said. "One or two out of 80 snaps is a single block."

He said the job is a sacrificial one, because the scheme is designed to keep blockers off the linebackers so they can make the tackles and pad their stats. Great play by a nose tackle might not be reflected in the final stats at all, but teammates appreciate the effort - and sacrifice.

"Anytime you can go in and hold your ground and make plays like he did, that's huge for our defense," Young said, referring to the tackles for losses Sopoaga had in Chicago on Aug. 25. "In a 3-4, it's vitally important that the nose (tackle) play well."

Coach Mike Nolan noted that Sopoaga has the size and strength to hold the fort in the middle of the line and the athleticism to shuck a blocker and go make a tackle. Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott used to extol the virtues of Michael Carter along the same lines when he played in the middle of 49ers' defenses from 1984 through '92.

There's more than brute strength involved, Sopoaga said.

"It's reading the offense. That's the most important thing for me," he said. "I want to go to another level as far as reading the offense and their game plan. Cutting loose - that would be great. Cutting me loose would be awesome."

There's that word again. Or rather, sole!

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