Hard-hitting Nick Moody looks to make mark on 49ers defense

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Nick Moody stretches during NFL football training camp. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

 SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- Joe Gaines and other teachers at Nick Moody's elementary school used to regularly pull the boy aside and remind him that physical stiff-arms and hip-checks on the playground could really hurt others.

   Moody knew exactly what he was doing with those football moves as one of the fastest and strongest kids in school.

   When children came in from recess crying or with visible bruises courtesy of Moody's roughhousing, football would be banned for a while. It happened again and again during his years at The Meadowbrook School in Abington, a Philadelphia suburb.

   "He would hip-check a kid and the kid would go flying," Gaines, Moody's sixth-grade teacher, recalled by phone Tuesday. "We would ban it again when he would knock over a couple of kids. He would stiff-arm, and his moves in general, the kids couldn't handle that kind of thing."

   That hard-hitting nature still defines Moody as an inside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers looking to follow in the footsteps of retired star Patrick Willis as he competes for a starting job this training camp.

   In fact, some of Moody's veteran teammates asked him on Day 1 in pads whether he was going to "bull rush."

   "On the playground my elementary school actually banned football because we would hit too much, and that was probably because of me," Moody said. "I've just always liked contact, since I was a little kid, so it's fun to me. That's the fun part of football."

   With his first extensive and consistent playing time as he begins his third NFL season, Moody will be counted upon in a far greater role.

   The 25-year-old Moody cherishes everything he learned from five-time All-Pro Willis, who walked away in March.

   "He always taught me, don't let outside things get to you, if something is bothering you don't be so outward about it, obvious with body language. Body language says a lot," Moody said. "He always told me to just keep faith, harp on the fundamentals and study stuff, and it'll all come together."

   He certainly plays the part of fierce defender.

   Gaines saw it years ago. He refers to "That Nick Moody Look," for a young man whom the teacher rarely saw smile aside from one memorable moment. Moody played Casey in a performance of the poem "Casey at the Bat" and it came to the line "a smile on Casey's face." After refusing to smile through the rehearsals, he finally did so when it mattered.

   "He rarely smiled at school," Gaines said. "He was a pretty good student. He just had that look, just a straight face."

   All spring, 49ers coach Jim Tomsula mentioned Moody as one of the bright spots of the offseason for his strides and discipline learning the linebacker position.

   Nobody questions the raw talent and athleticism -- and that speed that showed itself back at Meadowbrook. Moody played both safety and linebacker at Florida State.

   Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini wants to see Moody translate all of his work to the field on game day.

   "From his growth from last year to right now, from an ability to run the defense, to see what the offense is doing, his work ethic, I've really been happy with Nick's development," Mangini said.

   Moody notes he has demonstrated "that I can accept coaching."

   "I've shown my speed and athleticism but I think the biggest thing is showing my discipline within the scheme and being able to take those same fundamentals and apply them to an actual plan," he said.

   Moody was a sixth-round draft pick in 2013 and has made just two starts in the 20 games he has played so far. The gains have come with increased practice repetitions this camp after months of working on his craft.

   "He's had the best offseason I've seen of anybody," defensive lineman Darnell Dockett said. "He's the first one in and the last one to leave. He's asking questions and doing things outside of football to take care of his body. I think that when you've been in an organization with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, you think, `Why not him?' ... I told him that the sky is the limit for him."

   And across the country at The Meadowbrook School, those who remember the hard-nosed kid are hoping Moody shines.

   "We're rooting for him, of course," Gaines said.