49ers define key roles on defense

Jimmie Ward

49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put an end to speculation surrounding two key roles Thursday. Meanwhile the picture remains blurry along the offensive line leading into the season opener.

The training camp battles on defense are over after defensive coordinator Vic Fangio defined a pair of key roles Thursday ahead of Sunday’s season opener against the Cowboys.

Fangio confirmed Michael Wilhoite will be starting in place of the injured NaVorro Bowman, who will begin the season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list missing at least the first six games while recovering from ACL and MCL tears in his left knee. First-round pick Jimmie Ward will be the team’s nickel corner, likely to play more than half the defensive snaps while teams have three receivers on the field.

Wilhoite earned the job over third-round pick Chris Borland, who had a good showing in the preseason, but didn’t do enough to overtake Wilhoite and his experience.

In 2013, Wilhoite replaced Willis with the first-team defense in training camp and two games early in the season while Willis recovered from a broken hand and groin injuries. Wilhoite will play the Jack, although that inside linebacker position is interchangeable with the Mike, which will be handled by Willis. Bowman played Mike last season.

"(Willis and Wilhoite) have a good working relationship," Fangio said. "When Mike did play last year it was for Patrick. So he’s never been in a real game with Pat...They hadn’t had a lot of history together in games but on the practice field they obviously do."

Ward has been taking the majority of snaps at nickel with the first team since the start of training camp. Although Fangio never confirmed the news prior to Thursday, it comes as little surprise the former safety at Northern Illinois was given the job. There was a vacancy left by Carlos Rogers when he was released by the team in the spring saving more than $6 million in salary cap space.

Fangio also confirmed his starting corners will be Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock, giving the team four new faces in the secondary from last season. Tarell Brown and Rogers were the starters in 2013, while Nnamdi Asomugha subbed in to play the outside in nickel situations. Strong safety Antoine Bethea is poised to make his 49ers debut in place of Donte Whitner.

"Hopefully they’ll be able to play as good as those guys did and hopefully a little bit better," Fangio said. "Two guys (Culliver and Brock) we’ve talked about before have played a lot of football for us over the last three years.

"So it’s not like they’re rookies or new guys out there. They’ve all played a lot. We’re confident in both those guys and we’ll see where they take us."

On the offensive side, coordinator Greg Roman was noncommittal about the right side of his offensive line, which has been in flux leading up to the opener. Anthony Davis was absent from practice Thursday working out in the weight room after sustaining a hamstring injury since returning to the field prior to the third preseason game. He missed all of the offseason program and most of training camp while recovering from shoulder surgery.

[RELATED: BOONE READY TO CONTRIBUTE]

Right guard Alex Boone returned from his holdout this week, but Roman was undecided if he would play after missing all of training camp.

”He missed some time but looks good. I think he’s jumped back into the offense. We cut way back on some stuff so the stuff we’re doing is pretty manageable for him,” Roman said.

”We just got to see, evaluate it and make the best decision at the appropriate time. To sit here and say ‘Hey, we’re going to do this and do that,’ without all the information is not very prudent. When a player rejoins us we have to consider where he is physically as well as fundamentally and see where that goes at the appropriate time. Anything else would be probably unadvisable.”

MCDONALD LATE TO PRACTICE, AGAIN

Defensive lineman Ray McDonald was late to the practice field for the second-straight day this week for reasons unknown. McDonald was arrested for alleged domestic violence over the weekend and his status for Sunday’s season opener remains up in the air, and highly debated.

Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday he would let the facts of the situation make his decision on wether or not to play McDonald against the Cowboys.

”There’s two very strong principles at play. Number one is, we will not tolerate domestic violence and the second principle is the respect for due process,” Harbaugh said.

“It’s something we all know, we all live in America, we all understand that sometimes that patience is required when it comes to due process. But I think we all owe that. We all owe that to everybody that’s involved, is the respect for due process, in my opinion.”

Fangio said a potential contingency plan to replace McDonald is in place, and would likely consist of mixing and matching players along the defensive line based on the situation and the offense’s personnel.

Tony Jerod-Eddie played in McDonald’s place last year while he was dealing with ankle and a biceps injuries. The team also has Demarcus Dobbs, Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine at its disposal.

————————————————————————————

E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com

Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.

Get updates from NinersDigest by following here and become a subscriber to receive access to premium content and analysis.

NinersDigest.com Recommended Stories