SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Even though he's competing for playing time at the same position, San Francisco 49ers rookie NaVorro Bowman hardly rejoiced at the news of linebacker Scott McKillop's season-ending knee injury this week.
"We're like a big family at the linebacker position," Bowman said. "We help each other a lot. It's sad that Scotty went down, but I just hope he gets back really fast and continues to help me."
In the NFL, when one player goes down, another steps forward. McKillop, a special teams regular and possible backup to starter Takeo Spikes at "Ted" linebacker, underwent surgery Friday at Stanford Medical Center after suffering a torn ACL and torn patellar tendon in his left knee Wednesday.
Although McKillop hasn't been placed on I.R., which would officially put him out for the season, his likely absence means an opportunity for Bowman and eighth-year player Matt Wilhelm to win a backup role behind Spikes. Because the 32-year-old Spikes is unsigned beyond this year, it's possible one of them could be his successor.
"Things happen in this league that you've got to adjust to," said defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. "It's a great opportunity for those younger players, but they've got to compete."
Bowman, who was drafted in the third round out of Penn State, got a substantial number of reps with the second team Friday. He's making a transition from a 4-3 defense in college to the 3-4 the Niners run, and although it hasn't always been smooth, he's making gradual progress.
"I'm getting better every day," he said. "That's my goal, to come out here and not make the mistakes I made in the first part (of camp). It comes down to really knowing how to play the position and having the right technique. At this level, everyone is good and knows how to do their job, so you have to be able to do the right technique and be in the right position to get the ball."
To earn playing time on defense, Bowman will have to make the most of his chances in the preseason. But Manusky said his learn curve isn't necessarily steeper with the loss of McKillop.
"You'd like him to learn as much as he can in the short amount of time that he has," Manusky said. "But a majority of our defense is already in, and he's had OTAs, minicamp and then training camp to learn it. So he's heard it three different times, and he understands it."
The 49ers won't know how it translates to the playing field until their preseason opener Aug. 15 at Indianapolis. Even though Bowman believes he has the skills to play now, he also acknowledges that there's still more to learn.
"Talent-wise, I think I can do it," he said. "But there's a lot more to it than that. You kind of have to grow in this league to be successful, and it comes down to technique and things like that. I just have to keep working.
"The coaches will know when I'm ready, and when I am, they'll get me out there."