Alex Boone's remarkable journey


Alex Boone's remarkable journey

It felt like the end.

There was Alex Boone, sitting on the couch in his mother's house, on a quiet suburban Cleveland street. In the basement den were the plaques proclaiming him as the best high school football player in the football-crazy state of Ohio and a Parade All-American.

In a closet hung game-worn jerseys from his four seasons at Ohio State, where he was a two-time All-Big Ten selection.Upstairs there was only stunned silence.

Boone, nearly 6-foot-8, all of 328 pounds, never felt smaller.Boone had plenty of baggage that scared off NFL teams. He was cited for a DUI in the spring after his freshman season. Boone routinely downed "30 to 40 beers per day" as a freshman, according to an August 2006 article in the Dayton Daily News. And a well-documented drunken outburst just weeks prior to the draft appeared to make Boone persona non grata among NFL teams.

He followed along as NFL teams chose one player after another. And, finally, the draft came to a conclusion with a place-kicker being selected as the 256th and final player in the 2009 NFL draft.

"My oldest brother, Alex and I were sitting here kind of shell-shocked after the draft and no one had picked him up," said Boone's mother, Amy.

The 49ers had called earlier to inform Boone they were considering taking him with their final draft choice. Instead, at No. 244 overall, the 49ers selected defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois.

But the 49ers told Boone they were interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent. The 49ers awarded Boone a $10,000 signing bonus, a fraction of the money he would have received if based solely on his potential as an offensive lineman.

"So we were like, 'Oh, my God, what just happened?'" Amy Boone said.

That's when her brother, Keith Sulzer, a commander in the Cleveland Police Department, snapped everybody out of it.

"What are you crying about?" he said. "He's got a job!"

Instead of the end of everything he ever worked to achieve, Boone's draft-day disappointment served as a much-needed starting point.

Boone spent the 2009 season on the 49ers' practice squad. Today, he is the team's starting right guard. He, defensive tackle Junior Bryant and safety Ronnie Heard are the only 49ers in the past two decades to spend their rookie seasons on the practice squad and eventually work into full-time starting roles.

If that were the whole story, it would be remarkable on its own merit.But Boone's journey to get to this point has been one with many "bumps in the road," as described by Jim Tressel, his former coach at Ohio State. With his life in danger of veering uncontrollably off track, Boone has fought back with a show of resilience to overcome his struggles with unyielding support from family, friends and the 49ers.

"You're rooting for him all the time," Tressel said. "You knew he had it in him. But some times he'd take two steps forward and one back. He learned from everything. He had a mom and grandma who were going to be with him through thick and thin."

And it all began on the painful day in which 32 NFL teams repeatedly bypassed him -- deciding his size, strength and talent did not offset the incalculable risks.

"Everybody was just like, 'You're a liability. You're a problem,'" Boone said. "Going to camp and other guys are saying you're just not worth it for us. 'You're a great player but you're too much of a head case so we don't want to deal with you.' That's what really woke me up."

Nearly three months earlier, Boone was arrested after a drunken outburst in Aliso Viejo following a Super Bowl party. Boone was working out in Southern California to get prepared for the NFL scouting combine. Police said he was jumping up and down on the hood of cars and tried to smash the window of a tow truck. He fled police and was tasered twice to be subdued. His blood alcohol was three times the legal limit.

Just outside of Cleveland, the phone rang early that morning and awakened Amy Boone, the director of surgery at Cleveland Clinic. She immediately feared the worse.

"I remember hearing the sheriff on the phone and thinking something horrible had happened," she said. "I thought he had been in an accident or something. And they said, 'No, he's OK, but he's here in custody.'"

Boone would undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and arrive three months later at the 49ers' post-draft minicamp as a noted "character risk." Then-coach Mike Singletary did not wait long to tell Boone what he expected. Singletary promised Boone, "I'm going to break you like a wild horse."

Said Amy, "That's always the coaching that he's responded well to. Somebody who's in your face and really brutal. For whatever reason, he loved that."

Boone spent most of the next two seasons as a spectator during the regular season. He was on the practice squad as a rookie, and he did not suit up for the first 15 games in 2010. Behind the scenes, he worked diligently for the sole purpose of someday earning a starting role. With offseason mentoring from former NFL Pro Bowl lineman LeCharles Bentley, Boone slowly, but noticeably, went through a physical metamorphosis with a healthy diet and structured workout regimen. Bentley helped him fine-tune his technique.

Last year, Boone took over for veteran Barry Sims as the 49ers' backup offensive tackle on both sides of the line. He also entered regularly as an extra blocker.

The 49ers considered Boone one of the team's best five offensive linemen, so the club decided in the offseason to find a starting spot for him at right guard. He also doubles as the top backup at either tackle position.

"I think reality is always a good thing," said Tressel, now the vice president of strategic engagement at the University of Akron.

"In college he knew he could've been better, but he was still better than everybody else. That urgency wasn't there. Then he went to the NFL. Reality and adversity can be a good thing. I felt confident he would handle it right. He is a good man with a good heart."

The 49ers' offensive line has been one of the strengths of the team through seven games, and it's a unit whose nucleus figures to be around for a while together.

"I think potentially we can be the best in the NFL," Boone said. "When we stick together collectively, we are on the same page, I think were hard to beat and we've seen a lot of things thrown at us this year.

"We just got to stay focused and together and we can be the best."

Boone is one of the major reasons for a vastly improved offensive line. The 49ers did not offer Adam Snyder a contract, preferring to take their chances by moving Boone to guard. Snyder is a starter for a struggling Arizona Cardinals offensive line. Meanwhile, Boone has thrived in his starting role. According to Pro Football Focus, Boone has graded out as the second-best guard in the NFL.

"So it's wonderful to see the success that he's been able to achieve as a result of his hard work, because you don't always see that," Amy Boone said. "In the first couple years it was hard. I'm proud of him. But the hard work he was putting in, he was kind of only growing in little steps. And to now have this huge step of starting, it's just been really gratifying. For all of us to watch for him."

It was not long ago that Boone's future was in doubt. Now, he's married with son Jonathan, who turns 1 next week. Boone is signed with the 49ers through 2015. The character risk who no team wanted just 3 12/ years ago has seemingly found stability on and off the field.

"To his credit, he's taken his opportunity, his talent, his work ethic, and also a great attitude," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "And I think it's a great lesson for all the young players, individual players, that working hard, doing it with a great attitude, a team attitude, you figure it out. You get it. And he's a wonderful example of that."

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Until now, Kyle Shanahan’s hiring by the San Fracisco 49ers looked great because of his two-and-a-half predecessors – the last days of Jim Harbaugh, the misplaced concept of Jim Tomsula and the couldn’t-make-chicken-marsala-out-of-old-Kleenex problems surrounding Chip Kelly.

But now, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has told us all that Shanahan has a gift we in the Bay Area know all too well. Specifically, that Shanahan took too long to call plays to the Super Bowl the Falcons vomited up to the New England Patriots.

Now who does that remind you of, over and over again?

Yes, some things are evergreen, and too many options in this overly technological age seems to be one of them. Data in is helpful, but command going out is what bells the cow. Ryan said Shanahan was, well, almost Harbaugh-tastic in his timing.

“Kyle’s play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in,” Ryan told Bleacher Report. “As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you’re talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, ‘There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.’ You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

“With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You’re not being aggressive not running it there.”

And the reason this matters is because the Atlanta Shanahan had multiple good options on every play. In San Francsco, at least in the short term, he’ll be dealing with minimal options. That could speed up his choices, as in “What the hell, we don’t have Julio Jones.” But it could also mean more delays, as in, “Okay, him . . . no, maybe not . . . no, he just screwed up that play last series . . . oh, damn it, time out!”

In short, it’s growing pains season here, children. On the field, on the sidelines, and maybe even in Kyle Shanahan’s head.

49ers defense: Top training camp competitions

49ers defense: Top training camp competitions

Before starting six games as a rookie, Rashard Robinson had not played football since the 2014 season at LSU.

Yet, Robinson is the closest thing to a sure bet to win a starting job among 49ers cornerbacks.

Tramaine Brock was projected as the starting cornerback on the other side until his arrest on suspicion of a troubling domestic incident prompted the 49ers to release him more than three months ago.

The 49ers open training camp next week, and here are the top competitions for starting jobs on defense:

Keith Reaser has yet to make an NFL start while appearing in 28 games the past two seasons. The 49ers rotated cornerbacks with the first-team defense during the offseason program, and Reaser put himself in position to enter camp as the slight favorite to replace Brock.

Veterans Dontae Johnson and Will Davis will try to work their way into the picture. And the 49ers are hopeful talented rookie Ahkello Witherspoon will develop a willingness to play with more physicality. The 49ers selected Witherspoon in the third round. He has the size and all the tools to win the starting job, but there were times in college he showed an alarming lack of aggression as a tackler.

K'Waun Williams is healthy after missing last season due to an ankle injury and falling out of favor with the Cleveland Browns. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, one of the few holdovers from Chip Kelly’s staff, thinks highly of Williams after coaching him with the Browns. Hafley said he believes Williams can become one of the top covermen in the slot in the entire league.

Williams lined up with the first-team defense throughout the offseason program. His biggest competition could come from Will Redmond, whom the 49ers selected in the third round of the 2016 draft but did not play as a rookie due to a knee injury. Redmond has some rust to knock off, but he did not appear to show signs of the injury during the offseason program.

Arik Armstead is not the prototypical player at the “Leo” position. At 6 foot 7, Armstead does not have the low center of gravity that is typically associated with that position. But Armstead is certainly not lacking for athleticism.

The 49ers need a more consistent pass rush to assist their unproven cornerbacks, and this spot will be counted upon to provide more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Veteran Elvis Dumervil, who believes he has regained his explosion off the edge after being hampered with Achilles injury, was added last month to do what he does best. Dumervil, 33, enters the season with 99 career sacks.

Aaron Lynch is on notice as he enters his fourth NFL season. He moves from outside linebacker to defensive end in the 49ers’ new 4-3 scheme. Multiple competitions will be ongoing at this position, as the 49ers will look to determine the best fits for base downs, as well as passing situations.

The signing of free-agent Malcolm Smith raised a few eyebrows. It was just the offseason program, but Smith was as impressive as any player on the team during the non-padded practices. He is clearly comfortable in Robert Saleh’s scheme, which is based on the Seattle Seahawks’ defense.

The 49ers had Reuben Foster rated as their No. 3 prospect in the entire draft. They traded with the Seahawks to move up to select him at No. 31 overall. The 49ers seem thoroughly unconcerned with Foster’s shoulder. The club believes he will be medically cleared for the opening of training camp.

The 49ers might want to bring Foster along slowly, but it is clear they do not expect him to be a backup for very long.