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With mixed emotions Mike Iupati sees bright future for Cardinals

3/12/2015

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Once Mike Iupati's emotions settle, he'll be able to get used to wearing a different shade of red and blocking for a different kind of quarterback.

"It's pretty strange," Iupati said Wednesday during his introductory news conference with the Arizona Cardinals. "But you can adapt to wherever you go."

Iupati, rated as one of the best run-blocking guards in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, didn't want to leave the San Francisco 49ers, the team that drafted him five years ago. But the business part of free agency didn't work to keep him there and he landed at a division rival, ready to ignite a running game that was all but extinguished last season.

"Just difficult emotionally, I think [leaving the 49ers]," Iupati said. "I wanted to stay. It just didn't work out.

"You've got to move on and start. It's a job. You've just got to do your job and compete. It's just hard playing for somebody for five years. It's home."

But it's not like Iupati is venturing to a strange land far, far away.

He faced the Cardinals twice a season since 2010, battling Calais Campbell in nine of those games and Darnell Dockett in eight. But times have changed. Iupati will now only face Campbell in practice and after sharing a locker room with Dockett for less than a week, will again have to block him -- just in opposite jerseys.

Instead of laughing when Campbell beat him, Iupati can laugh when Campbell beats other guards.

"I have a lot of respect for him as a player and as a person, so it's pretty cool," Iupati said. "We're out there having fun and laughing at each other. If he makes a big play, I just laugh at him."

By joining Arizona, Iupati will be blocking for a traditional pocket passer for the first time in two-and-a-half seasons when Alex Smith quarterbacked the 49ers. Iupati finished last season as the 55th-rated guard in pass blocking by PFF, but he struggled in pass protection because of a broken foot, he said.

"It was hard and I had to fight through it and I had to play," he said. "It's football. You've got to compete. I'm not going to have excuses, but it's just part of the game. You win some. You lose some."

While he praised current San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Iupati enjoyed playing in front of Smith.

"I had fun blocking for Alex Smith," he said. "It's different. It's a different style quarterback. We didn't have the whole offensive line last year. Anthony Davis missed out, so our chemistry was … it was there but it's just different players.

"It's just like somebody leaves and you don't have that connection. I think you've just got to mesh together and get close together and just trust one another."

And Iupati prefers to mesh with his offensive line mates at left guard. Iupati said on Wednesday he hopes to stay on the left side, where he's played his entire career. Although the Cardinals haven't publically announced where Iupati will play, he's never taken a snap at right guard in five seasons. But the Cardinals invested a first-round pick in left guard Jonathan Cooper in 2013, making the debate inevitable.

"I think I'm a left guard, he said. "I hope so. I think so."

While Iupati admitted he'll miss playing next to Joe Staley in San Francisco, he said he's "excited" to play alongside left tackle Jared Veldheer. He's also said it's "pretty cool" to stay in the NFC West.

After losing to Arizona in Week 2 last season, Iupati could tell the Bruce Arians' Cardinals weren't the Cardinals of old. And it helped make his decision to sign with Arizona easier.

"That's when I knew," he said. "Then you guys had the long winning streak. It was really fun. I think his team is going to go over the hump."