SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Rookie safety Taylor Mays didn't have much time to prepare himself mentally for his first NFL start last Sunday. On the same day that starter Michael Lewis abruptly quit the San Francisco 49ers and asked for his release, Mays was thrust into the lineup.
You might expect a rookie to have a few problems in his initial start, but Mays didn't. Although the 49ers lost to the Atlanta Falcons 16-14, he finished with a team-high 11 tackles and a special teams touchdown.
"Taylor Mays had no mental errors in the game," coach Mike Singletary said. "None. Well, I'll say maybe just one. He knew exactly where he needed to be, he played his position well, he brought value to our team. I think he's going to be a tremendous asset going forward."
The 49ers have had few positive developments in their 0-4 season, but Mays, a second-round draft pick from USC, is one of them. The loss of Lewis, who was told the team wanted to ease Mays into the lineup at his expense, is still resonating in the locker room, but Mays' play is an encouraging sign.
"Taylor did great," cornerback Nate Clements said. "He did what the coaches asked him to do, he did his responsibilities. He actually went out there and made plays. It showed when he got on the field that he was ready to go. He knew what he was doing, he was confident in what he was doing."
Even so, Mays said there's room for improvement.
"It was OK," he said of his debut. "There was a lot of stuff I could get better at. It was kind of discouraging watching the film (but also) encouraging because I felt like I could be so much better right now than what I saw on film -- just with technique, with tackling, with playing fast. I don't feel like I have to play like a rookie."
So far, he hasn't. The 49ers deemed him not quite ready at the start of the season, but they figured it was time to make a move last week. The news hit Lewis hard because the team wanted him to act as Mays' mentor in the transition, something he was unwilling to do.
Mays said he was caught unprepared for what was happening.
"I was a little surprised, but you've just got to roll with it," he said. "I didn't think would happen like how it happened, but it did and I just went with it. It was a trip the way it went down, but at the same time I was preparing during the week like I was going to play, so it kind of made my transition a little easier."
Mays topped everything off with his special teams touchdown, which came in the first quarter after a blocked punt by Dominique Zeigler. Mays caught the ball in the air and kept both feet inbound at the back of the end zone.
"It was great awareness on his behalf," Singletary said. "Since he's been here, I just think he continues to blossom. There are things that, when we drafted him, we hoped he could do. We were not sure if he could do them, but he has surpassed our expectations about what he can and cannot do."