Mike Iupati could be the greatest offensive lineman from Idaho since Jerry Kramer, a fact not lost on Kramer himself. He was watching his alma mater one day when he saw a behemoth pull from his guard position, race downfield and smash a helpless defender.
The play tugged at Kramer's heartstrings. He made his name leading the Packers sweep for a coach named Vince Lombardi. So when Kramer saw Iupati moving with the size of a grizzly and the speed of a gazelle, he scrambled for his program.
To his amazement, he found this: 6-foot-5, 331 pounds.
"He can move for a big sucker," Kramer, 74, said. "I haven't seen a guy pull like that in a long time."
The 49ers agreed with that assessment, which is why they took Iupati with the No. 17 pick in the NFL draft. Conventional wisdom says you don't take an offensive guard that high, but the 49ers concluded that conventional wisdom never got a load of Iupati.
"This guy has a chance to be special," director of player personnel Trent Baalke said.
Iupati (pronounced YOU-pah-tee) made his 49ers debut this weekend during a three-day rookie minicamp.
For an advanced scouting report, the Mercury News called Kramer, the five-time All-Pro, five-time NFL champion, two-time Super Bowl winner and right guard once rated by the NFL Network as the best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As it turns out, Kramer was well-acquainted with Iupati. They met in December before the Humanitarian Bowl. It was an amiable chat between the Idaho greats — the spud studs — and, in Kramer's words, "I got a chance to lay a piece of wisdom on his (backside)."
Kramer's message was brief. He told Iupati to hold on tight — to his money and to his memories — because the NFL ride will be a whirlwind. Iupati took the message to heart.
"Meeting him was an inspiration," he said after practice last week. "Jerry Kramer was such a great player, and he came from Idaho like me. It gave me a lot of motivation."
Kramer later gave Iupati an autographed copy of his best-selling book, "Instant Replay," with an inscription that read: "Every play, every down, every series, every meeting — like it's your last."
It's not an accident that those lines have echoes of Lombardi. Kramer learned his craft from the famously demanding coach. Lombardi believed that even a simple running play would be unstoppable as long as his offensive linemen executed properly.
The key for Iupati, Kramer said, will be to understand that type of mental discipline.
"He's got great physical skills, and I think he's on his way to getting a little stronger," Kramer said. "The big question for him is the mind. "... At the college level, he might run into one or two players a year that give him a challenge. In the NFL, he's going to run into that guy every week. He has to be ready for guys that have the speed, the strength and the agility."
Plenty of Idaho players have made the NFL since Kramer was drafted in 1958, including Mark Schlereth, a 10th-round pick in '89 who went on to make two Pro Bowls.
But Iupati is the rare Vandal to draw a national spotlight. He was a finalist for the Outland Trophy as college football's best interior lineman. And when the 49ers called his name, Iupati joined running back Ray McDonald (1967) as the only first-round picks from the school.
"It's hard to get much attention in Idaho," said Kramer, who lives in Boise. "As far as the media and the rest of the world is concerned, it's the land that time forgot."
That's why Kramer is rooting for Iupati. And it's also why he has some advice.
"There were a couple things I didn't get to tell him when we met, so we'll tell him in this article," Kramer said.
So gather 'round and listen to the man who used to pave the way for the likes of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. Kramer also helped clear the path for quarterback Bart Starr to score the winning touchdown in the 1967 championship game victory over the Cowboys.
Tip No. 1: When Iupati gets to the second level of the defense, he needs to recognize that there are two tactics available to a defensive back looking to upend him. One is for the defender to go in low — "submarine style," Kramer called it — and wipe out Iupati's legs. The other tactic is for the defender to back off and play the angles.
"So what I used to do was watch the guy's helmet. If he dropped down low, I would drop down to meet him, "Kramer said. "A defensive back won't stand up to a hit like that, and they generally don't like that too much. In the future, they'll back off."
Tip No. 2: If the defensive back tries to play the angles, Kramer said, "Just run the hell over him. Maybe give him a forearm, but stay on your feet and keep running." Even if no contact is made, a hard-charging blocker will make a defensive back commit to an angle, "and once that happens, a smart back is going to recognize that right away and he'll get the step he needs."
Kramer merrily recalled the day he nailed four Chicago Bears defensive players on a single play. Was Lombardi upset that he didn't wipe out five?
"Probably," Kramer said.
Iupati, who turns 23 on May 12, said he is ready for his chance to follow suit. There is no hitting in this rookie minicamp, but he still managed to make an impression with his size and athleticism. He is also eager to carry on Kramer's legacy.
Every play, every down, every series, every meeting — like it's your last.
"I come off the ball fast and physical," Iupati said. "I try to attack my opponents."