Often in sports, as with life, we can look to individuals who helped to guide us on our way, gave us a chance or perhaps even inspired us. Football is no different, a sport where veterans, some with over a decade in the NFL, can be competing with and guiding younger men who can count the years they have played football on one hand.
These veterans are frequently expected to be tone-setters, individuals who lead by example, the best of whom command respect naturally due to their unique aura and abilities, traits that have set them apart from their peers across the league.
Such players can have a major impact upon the culture of the team as a whole, but also upon the culture within smaller positional groups, such is the specificity of the NFL (arguably more so than many other sports). Within these groups, their attitude and years of accumulated knowledge and expertise can forever alter the trajectory of a young player’s career, turning them from prospect into superstar.
Of course, every player and every relationship is different, but the 49ers need not look far to see the fruits of such positive relationships. Within their division, the stabilising and supportive presences of Patrick Peterson, his father and Bruce Arians have helped mould Tyrann Mathieu into one of the most feared defensive players in the league. After watching All or Nothing, it hardly seems a coincidence that the presence and resulting influence of Dwight Freeney preceded a breakout season by Markus Golden, or that the work ethic and training camp competitiveness of Carson Palmer didn’t have a some positive effects on fellow USC-alum Matt Barkley.
There can be little doubt that under the new regime, the 49ers are deliberately seeking to create such support networks. New Defensive Quality Control coach DeMeco Ryans is expected to take an active role in Reuben Foster’s NFL development. Rashard Robinson, despite his own youth, has established himself as a leader in an incredibly young cornerbacks room, imposing his über-competitive and confrontational personality on a group that must adopt such a persona or risk failure. Most intriguingly, the 49ers have signed a man often compared to Dwight Freeney – Elvis Dumervil. He and sixth-round rookie Pita Taumoepenu now compete for playing time at the LEO pass rusher position, a critical position in the 49ers’ new defense. Though Dumervil was clearly signed to deliver on the field, it is arguable that his off-field presence could well be the most significant benefit to a rebuilding franchise.
Dumervil is going into his twelfth season in the NFL, having been drafted by the Broncos before going onto play for the Ravens for four seasons, over the course of which he has received numerous accolades. He has twice been a First Team All-Pro, is a five time Pro Bowler and to date has 99 career NFL sacks. At the collegiate level, he left Louisville as a unanimous All-American and the winner of three major collegiate awards: the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player in the NCAA), the Ted Hendricks Award (the best defensive end in college football) and the Bill Willis Trophy (the best defensive lineman in college football).
Taumoepenu’s career thus far has received considerably less attention. Born in Euless, Texas, and named after his grandfather, he moved to Tonga aged only three months old to be raised by his grandparents. He returned to the US aged 17, attending Timpview HS in Utah.
At Timpview, Taumoepenu played just one year of high school football. Despite his extremely limited experience, Taumoepenu recorded 25 sacks, the third highest single season total in state history, was recognised as first team all-state and earned himself a place at Utah. The night before his championship game, his grandfather passed away. Nevertheless, despite the devastating loss of a man who had been a father and inspiration to him, he played in the championship game, recording four sacks including the game clincher in overtime. Delivering a championship winning performance in the face of major adversity, this would not be the only huge performance on the big stage of Taumoepenu’s burgeoning career.
Once at Utah, Taumoepenu was primarily used as a specialist pass rusher across his four seasons. In this role, he recorded 21.5 sacks, fifth most of all time despite only starting seven matches. His sack total grew with each season but there can be little doubt that his usage and lack of size (6”1, 243lbs) would have left numerous NFL teams worried about his ability to translate to the NFL. It may well have been his performance in his final college match that helped to secure his status as an NFL prospect in the eyes of the 49ers.
On 28th December 2016, Taumoepenu’s Utes took on Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium. Starting for only the seventh time in his college career, Taumoepenu had a huge game, once again highlighting his appetite for the biggest stage. He recorded two sacks, an additional quarterback hurry and two tackles for losses as he helped to lead the Utes to a victory. His success at Levi’s will undoubtedly have helped to ensure he was known within the 49ers personnel department, whilst his relentless attitude and explosive athleticism would have been key in his being drafted. His good memories of Levi’s can only help him to settle, a settling in period that will surely be helped by the presence of Dumervil.
This is not the only way Dumervil can help Taumoepenu. Both were perceived to be undersized pass rushers coming out of college, reliant on athletic traits that translate inconsistently to the NFL. Nonetheless, their pass rushing prowess and perceived upside both saw them drafted and in Dumervil’s case, this prowess has seen his upside become legitimate production as he has become one of the most effective pass rushers of the last decade.
His experience and knowledge of the NFL transition and NFL-level football will be invaluable to all the 49ers defensive linemen, but Taumoepenu stands to benefit the most. Not only are there similarities between them athletically, but Dumervil is also one of the most polished pass rushers in the NFL. Despite his declining athleticism, his continued productivity is testament to his technical and mental abilities, honed in the film room and on the training field. Whilst you cannot teach athleticism (to a large extent) the technical and scholastic knowledge he can convey to the wildly inexperienced Taumoepenu will be invaluable to the young man’s NFL development.
Taumoepenu’s own receptiveness to the knowledge and example of Dumervil will of course be significant in its own right, but his reported work ethic and desire to succeed will help him massively and suggest a receptiveness to instruction and example. Dumervil is unlikely to be as significant an influence on Taumoepenu as his late grandfather, but there is little reason why he cannot be the Obi-Wan to Taumoepenu’s Anakin. 49ers fans will certainly hope that Dumervil can help to mould the inexperienced Tongan into as fearsome a rusher as he has been. Regardless however, it is impossible not to root for the softly spoken Taumoepenu, inspired by his grandfather to be a sporting success and to take every opportunity that comes his way.