The San Francisco 49ers (10-2) claimed their first NFC West title since 2002 and their 18th division title in the Super Bowl era with a shutout victory, 26-0, against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday. The 49ers became the NFL’s second team to secure a playoff berth behind the lone unbeaten Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. And in his first year, head coach Jim Harbaugh has revived a lifeless team that was once a proud franchise and now looks to return to the glory days of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, Steve Young and Roger Craig. Led by starting quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore, who became the 49ers career rushing leader last week by passing late Hall of Famer Joe Perry, San Francisco’s march to the postseason has been all about the long-time sufferers as the rookies who helped transform the franchise.
Enter rookie cornerback Chris Culliver. A third-round pick out of South Carolina, Culliver was taken 80th overall in the 2011 NFL draft. San Francisco was amazed at the former Gamecocks physical attributes (6’0’’, 200 pounds) his collegiate stats (56 tackles, 14 pass breakups, 10 tacks, 4.0 sacks, three interceptions and three force fumbles), speed (runs in the low 4.4 seconds) and the fact that he switched to cornerback his senior year after playing safety for his first three collegiate seasons. It didn’t take long before the 49ers inserted the 23-year-old into the lineup, alongside veteran Carlos Rodgers. Culliver’s first career interception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5 proved that he was more than just a rookie fill-in for injured veteran Shawntae Spencer. His performance against Detroit Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, led ESPN Insider’s Mel Kiper to name Culliver as his top five rookies to breakout in the second half of the NFL season. Yet, despite his early success, Culliver is taking everything in stride. Life + Times caught up with the rookie cornerback to discuss the 49ers return to glory, being overlooked in the draft, coach Harbaugh and going up against Megatron.
Life + Times: You’re having a great start to your rookie season. Is it everything that you had expected?
Chris Culliver: Everything has been cool for me. I’ve been in the right positions and coaches have faith in me, so I’m a continue to help the team out.
L+T: You had a big interception versus Tampa Bay. Take us through your first NFL grab?
Culliver: We were playing man concept and I was singled out and I know the pressure was going to be on me and lock the two. Just from the film study I had a 50-50 percent chance of what Mike Williams was going to do, either an in or out, so I pretty much got a good jump on it, undercut the route and got a good interception.
Life +Times: What was it like playing against your hometown Philadelphia Eagles?
Culliver: It was fun. Growing up and seeing Donovan McNabb and now Michael Vick it was definitely an inspiration for me. But just having a chance to play against him was fun. It was actually my first start. I got four tackles. DeSean Jackson tried to chuck me but I had to throw his little but out of bounds.
Life + Times: You’re herald as a tall cornerback, that’s very fast. How do you think you matchup against the top receivers?
Culliver: Like Calvin Johnson or someone like him?
Life + Times: Yes, Megatron.
Culliver: It was cool. He had the height and me being a rookie I knew they were pretty much go after me. But my job was to pretty much be physical with him. A lot of teams aren’t physical with him, but that’s what you have to do, when you have a dominate person like that who can really change the game. So pretty much my job was to be physical and beat him up.
Life + Times: Do you feel you were successful?
Culliver: Yea, I feel I was. There were a lot of times when I didn’t like his play, where he likes to push off and things like that, but I get that from receivers all the time. I know during situations like that I’m a strap him down and he’s going to have a hard time getting away from me. Really, I don’t…there’s a lot of guys in the league for a long time and I know they have a lot of experience over me but I really just play them in the zone. I don’t take anyone’s game over another’s game. They’re big names that really don’t mean that much to me, but when it comes down to it they’re still players. They do the same thing I do and train. But I approach every game the same.
Life + Times: In college you started out as a safety and then switched to cornerback. Talk about that transition?
Culliver: Well, my whole college career I played safety and during my senior year I started playing cornerback. In my eyes, I just really felt like I was a better corner because I know how to cover. My coach saw it in me, playing one-on-one, he always said I had the best techniques, so we worked on it and after that Spring, I made myself into a corner. I played a couple of games and obviously got drafted playing corner.
Life + Times: What was going through your mind when you were selected by the 49ers in the draft?
Culliver: I was happy. I thought I was going to go a little higher, but I can’t complain. I’m playing on a team that’s winning and that’s all that I care about. But, it was a good experience and I’m definitely glad to be on this team.
Life + Times: Why did you expected to go higher in the draft?
Culliver: I did expect to go a little higher, but I knew that I didn’t really get to showcase my talent at corner because we only played six games and then I got injured [torn pectoral]. So it was kind of like I had to get back on the map. I worked hard, and people liked me, but I knew that if I got that one coach who liked me I was on board. I just had confidence that there was no one really better than me. For instance, like Patrick Peterson and Marcus Gilchrist. I’m not even starting and I’m having a better season than them already. But it is what it is. That’s just what I felt. But, I have to keep moving forward and keep playing good for my team.
Life + Times: Who on the team has taken you under their wing?
Culliver: Carlos Rodgers. He’s older and he’s a veteran who’s been in the league for seven plus years. That’s a good dude. When were on the field, or off the field, even in practice, he always tells me to watch out for this or watch out for that, and things I didn’t see that he may know, like watch out for this seven cut, and certain situations teams like to do. He has been the most influential person to me on the team.
Life + Times: Has he pin-pointed any errors you may have made in the game?
Culliver: He just talks about situations that happen in the game. For instance, sometimes the play is a short distance and he might say: “You need to crush this and do that.” Or even sometimes when I go to press someone, he might tell me to get off or something like that. He talks to me in all situations that’s why I feel like I am progressing each game ‘cause he helps me out.
Life + Times: How does it feel to be a part of a resurging 49ers franchise?
Culliver: It feels good. But, we’re not chilling. We’re definitely hungry. We don’t want to be complacent and we don’t want to listen to the critics, because before they all said we weren’t going to be nothing and now they want to jump on us. But we definitely want to prove to the world that we are nice and we’re the San Fran that we used to be. We’re definitely going to take every game like it’s the Super Bowl, like coach Harbaugh says in practice, were we just get after it.
Life + Times: Talk about the game against Detroit and the aftermath between Harbaugh and Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
Culliver: Nah, nah…I don’t really take anything away from coach Harbaugh. Every day we see that mentality from him. He’s just that type of coach. He always gives you that firm grip hand shake, slaps you on the back and says ‘let’s go have a good one.’ I guess the other head coach didn’t like that too much and took it the wrong way, but we as a team, we knew he didn’t mean anything by it.
Life + Times: Is there a receiver that you’re looking forward to going up against?
Culliver: Not necessarily. But I was definitely looking forward to going up against my man Brandon Bank who plays for the Washington Redskins, cause he was my punt returner in high school and we haven’t played together since then. The excitement of playing against your man in the NFL is what I look for. Playing people that I grew up with or played with.
Life + Times: The NFL game is fast and more physical than the collegiate game. Has the play been everything you expected or more?
Culliver: Everything I expected it to be. To me it wasn’t that fast, but just adjusting to situations and things like that and knowing your responsibilities, cause a situation can run up on you fast if you don’t know what you’re doing. There are fast people in college. There are fast people in the league. I’m fast. It’s all just knowing your responsibilities.
Life + Times: You are fast. How do you maintain your speed?
Culliver: Mostly doing sprints. Sometimes when I go into practice in the morning I do the interval. Run for 40 seconds and then 20 seconds off, to keep that speed up and get the full mobility in running.
Life + Times: What are your predications for the rest of the season?
Culliver: My focus is just too really get my hands on the ball. I’ve been getting my hands on the ball but just to come up with them. Instead of it being pass break, I need it to be an interception. I need more of those to come my way.