It’s looking more and more like Michael Wilhoite will be starting at inside linebacker when the 49ers take on the Cowboys Sept. 7 top open 2014.
In the team’s third preseason game Sunday, commonly considered the closest thing to a dress rehearsal for the regular season, Wilhoite started alongside Patrick Willis and the rest of the presumed starting front seven.
Fangio Tuesday wouldn’t fully commit to Wilhoite becoming the starter, but did say, “We’re confident in Mike, and we think he’ll do fine in there like he was last year in those couple games he played.”
Throughout the preseason, Fangio maintained the stance that the competition to replace NaVorro Bowman was even between Wilhoite and rookie third-round pick Chris Borland. The team officially put Bowman on the reserve/physically unable to perform list Monday forcing him out of at least the first six weeks of the regular season after he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the NFC Championship Game.
Wilhoite made two starts early last season in place of Willis, who was dealing with a groin injury in Weeks 4 and 5. Wilhoite’s transition to the starting lineup was aided after Willis went down early in that training camp with a broken hand, allowing him to get the majority of reps with the first team for nearly all of camp.
From that experience, Wilhoite gleaned the difference between simply executing plays called and understanding the context of the game.
"Knowing the situation of the game, the flow, what down and distance, the time on the clock, where we are on the field. All the little stuff like that," Wilhoite said. "In practice you’re just practicing plays. They’re calling all that stuff to you, but how much are you focusing on it? And I think a game makes you focus on those things."
That came to light in the scoreless first quarter Sunday, when on 4th-and-1 at their own 5-yard line, Willis and Wilhoite paired up to stop San Diego running back Ryan Mathews short of the first down.
"It was a big stop. Mike came through and cleaned him up good," Willis said. "There’s going to be plays like there where it’s going to be us two, and we’re going to have other times where we’ll individually have to make plays.
"I can count on Mike and I have complete faith in him."
Prior to Sunday’s win, the 49ers had gone through the preseason without a majority of the starters on defense. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Ian Williams and Willis all made their 2014 game debuts, allowing unit to build chemistry in a game situation for the first time.
"I think that we’re feeding off each other, we’re communicating well, vibing well on the field," Wilhoite said. "The number one thing is chemistry. And you got to know who you’re working with, what he’s seeing, what he’s thinking. We’re doing well with that and we’ll continue to work at this week and next week and as we work into the season.”
Given Wilhoite’s experience as a starter last year, chemistry would be much less of an issue with him than the rookie Borland, who is still working to become more assignment sound. But Borland is continuing to make strides in that area. With the second unit Sunday, he wound up leading the team in tackles and had a sack in the third quarter.
”He’s understanding that what he sees he just can’t always go to all the time,” Fangio said of Borland. “There are assignments that have to be carried out…It’s easy to tell a player what to do. They got to feel it and see it, and see the importance of it. And it’s happened to him enough to where I think it’s moving in that good direction.”
Wilhoite, a former safety at Washburn who went undrafted in 2011, had enough time with the No. 1s on defense to no longer feel the pressures brought on my inexperience. That pressure, rather, comes from playing with the talented players around him.
"It makes me play that much better because I know they’re going to be all on point. So if one play breaks or something doesn’t go right, it’s not going to be them,” Wilhoite said. “I just got to make sure I put myself in the right position to compliment everything that they do so well.”
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