Last December in the fourth quarter of the NFC Conference Championship game against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers starting inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman went down with a gruesome knee injury. He tore his ACL and MCL and will likely be out until the 49ers’ 2014 Thanksgiving night game with the Seahawks in Week 13.
That would be the earliest he’ll likely come back. So who fills in next to perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis until Bowman can come back?
The next man up at the inside linebacker position is a guy not many people have even heard of. His name is Michael Wilhoite and he’s a third-year player out of Washburn University. Last year, he started two games, filling in for an injured Willis. In those two games, he had a combined 20 tackles.
What makes Wilhoite such a great fit for this team is how versatile he is. He’s an incredible athlete who played six different positions in college due to his athletic ability. San Francisco asks their inside linebackers to cover tight ends a fair bit, and although Wilhoite is a backup, they won’t be afraid to ask him to cover because he is so athletic and can run with most tight ends.
Against the run, he sees the ball very well, takes good angles and is a very solid tackler. In the 49ers’ defense, this might be the most important part of their success year after year. Their linebackers have to stay clean and must be able to diagnose the play and get to the ball. Wilhoite does all of that well.
Last season, Wilhoite was thrown into the starting role without many starting reps at practice and did very well. This year, he will have the whole offseason to prepare with the starting defense and will be sure to surprise people.
The 49ers subscribe to the “next man up” philosophy possibly more than any other team in the NFL. No matter how big of a star gets injured, they never hit the panic button. They have faith in their scouting, preparation of players, and preparation of coaches. Every player has a specific role and if one player goes out, another one comes in and fills that role.
Wilhoite is no exception. He will certainly catch people by surprise around the league, but everyone in the 49ers organization already knows how good he is.