In Week 2 of the preseason, with Patrick Willis sitting out after suffering a stinger in a training camp practice, Borland got the start against the Broncos and the five-time MVP.
And on Manning's second and final drive of the day, he took advantage of an early mistake from the third-round pick and found his tight end Julius Thomas wide open for a 17-yard touchdown. Thomas had inside leverage against safety Craig Dahl after Borland bit on an underneath route.
"We made a call, Craig and I were on the same page with the wrong call," Borland said, with a wry smile on his face.
At that point, Borland had one preseason game on his NFL resume, and reflected on the play as if happened much longer than two months ago.
"I feel like I’ve played an entire year of college (since that game) and have that much more experience, that much more comfortable," Borland said.
Borland is likely to get another chance against Manning and Broncos this weekend thanks to Willis' toe injury suffered in Monday night's win over the Rams. Willis did not practice Wednesday and remains in a walking boot.
Borland, the former Wisconsin Badger, entered the game on St. Louis' final play of the first half and played the rest of the way in Willis' "mike" position next to Michael Whilhoite, whom he built a strong rapport with during the preseason.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gave Borland 148 preseason snaps on defense while competing for the job to replace the injured NaVorro Bowman. For most of camp, Fangio termed the competition even between him and Wilhoite, but Wilhoite's experience and ability to play both the "jack" and "mike" position helped him win the starting job.
That rapport was put to the test Monday, when Borland made a pair of tackles and broke up two passes against the Rams.
"Guys rallied around me, really helped me out in the second half," Borland said. "Thankful to be playing behind Ray (McDonald) and Justin (Smith) inside...in front of Antoine (Bethea) and Eric (Reid). It’s pretty easy with those guys."
And now, being forced into the starting lineup, the 49ers appear to have made the right decision to draft Borland despite having Willis and Bowman around for the long term. Willis is signed through 2017, Bowman 2018.
It was only natural for Borland to feel a touch of disappointment when getting drafted by the 49ers knowing they already had two All-Pros at his position, knowing he could probably start for a number of other teams. But with Bowman and Willis now injured, he has benefited from having them around as mentors as he preps for Manning.
"I think those are two of the best guys in the league, maybe in a long time to play the position," said Borland. "I’ve grown a lot because of those guys."
In a conference call with Bay Area reporters Wednesday, Manning insisted he's preparing for the 49ers starters in case they were to play. But in actuality, the Broncos are likely drawing up ways to get Borland isolated on Thomas, who's listed at six inches taller than the squat Borland.
After all, the knocks on Borland coming into the league were his short arms 4.83 speed. Neither lend to covering swift tight ends that stand 6'5". Thomas also leads the league with 9 touchdown catches.
But 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh believes the rookie is up to the challenge and is already playing beyond his years.
"He's shown that he can play," Harbaugh said. "Shown it on special teams. Two weeks ago, four tackles. This past week, tackled well, broke up two passes. Excited for him."
Some had Borland pegged as a first-round talent before his lack of speed at the combined caused his stock to drop. Borland had 50 tackles for loss in 55 games at Wisoncsin, and set a conference record with 15 forced fumbles in his career.
"I’m sure (the Broncos) will try to isolate me in some situations," Borland said. "But they can’t stray too far from who they are. In times of need they’ll revert from what they like to do. And I’ll be prepared for both."
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