Scott McKillop: On the way back

Scott McKillop looks a lot like he did last year at this time before a training-camp knee injury wiped out his 2010 season – robust, eager, optimistic and ready to compete for playing time at inside linebacker. The difference this year is McKillop has the humbling experience of sitting through a season on injured reserve, something that's made him vow to come back stronger for the 49ers in 2011.

With the knee injury now behind him, McKillop has arrived at training camp in tremendous condition and wearing the look of a gritty linebacker that just can't wait to hit somebody. It has been quite a while since that happened, and the third-year veteran wants to make up for lost time.

McKillop had plenty of lost time last year to look toward his 2011 return after tearing knee ligaments and landing on injured reserve last Aug. 12. He remained close to the team throughout the season and was a regular figure in the locker room, beginning his rehabilitation as soon as he was cleared to do so. McKillop diligently hit the weights to get even stronger, and now his muscular legs bulge from his waist to the ground.

"I definitely worked probably even harder this offseason than the previous one to get back to where I was before," McKillop said. "So I'm excited for another opportunity to be back out there. I belong out there."

McKillop proved he belonged during his rookie season after the 49ers selected him with a fifth-round draft pick in 2009. McKillop didn't get a lot of action at inside linebacker behind stalwart starters Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, but he provided quality depth behind those two while establishing himself as a playmaker on special teams.

McKillop displayed his ability to get to the football and throw around his 245-pound frame for big hits while leading the 49ers with 31 special teams tackles. He also scored his first NFL touchdown on special teams, recovering a fumble in the end zone after a muffed punt against St. Louis in October.

He got a few tastes of action on defense, recording eight tackles, including three in an October game against Houston. When the 49ers selected NaVorro Bowman in the third round of the 2010 draft, McKillop was ready to face the challenge of contending with Spikes and Bowman for both the starting slot opposite Willis and the role as San Francisco's third linebacker.

Instead, the challenge he faced was the long, hard, occasionally discouraging road to rehabilitation and recovery after a major injury. Now that road is behind him, and McKillop is revived for what lies ahead. He was a happy camper to get back on the field last week, and could barely contain his enthusiasm for getting back in pads for the first time Sunday.

"It's very refreshing," McKillop said. "It was a long year last year, lots of ups and downs, both emotionally and physically. I'm happy to be back out there with my teammates now. I'm just taking it one day at a time and trying to get better from practice to practice."

McKillop, whose specialty is plugging the middle against the run, will now face the head-to-head competition with Bowman that he missed out on last year. But this time, with Spikes leaving the team last week to join the San Diego Chargers in free agency, the competition likely will be for the starting TED position next to Willis in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme.

Bowman, coming off a 15-tackle performance in the team's 2010 season finale, starts training camp with the lead in that competition, but McKillop is right on his heels and is a more polished player now than the last time he put on a San Francisco uniform.

Like practically everybody else on defense, McKillop also is getting a fresh start under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and McKillop is taking that opportunity to heart.

"I think we're definitely aware of that," McKillop said. "The coaches have told us there are a lot of opportunities for people to step in and play more this season. So we'll just take it upon each other to make each other better, and the best man plays."

And McKillop figures he'll be better after he gets back into the flow during training camp, which should put him right in the thick of the mix for the starting TED position.

"I definitely do," McKillop said. "Coach Vic said that right now, it's not how you start, it's how you finish. You just have to get better each day. I help NaVorro get better, he helps me get better, Keaton (Kristick) and everybody else. The best man plays and helps the team win."

McKillop figures to do that wherever he lands on the field in 2011, picking up where he left off after his promising rookie season, with an entire year of stored-up energy to propel him forward.

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