SANTA CLARA In 2003, redshirt freshman Eric Bakhtiari was on a panel of University of San Diego players responsible for interviewing head-coaching candidates.
One of the men who walked through the door was Jim Harbaugh, who quickly got the players' stamp of approval.
"To have someone like that come all the way down to us? Honestly, we were kind of astonished, kind of star-struck," said Bakhtiari, whose Toreros played in the Division I-AA Pioneer Football League. "Jim Harbaugh? Everyone knew who 'Captain Comeback' was."
Nine years later, the two have reunited.
Bakhtiari has bounced around the NFL since 2008, including two short stints in 2008 and 2010 on the 49ers' practice squad. But the outside linebacker has a fair chance of sticking with Harbaugh and the 49ers this year.
The 49ers admit they gambled last year by having only three outside linebackers on the roster, and they are hesitant to do so again in 2012.
With that in mind, they drafted two players at the position in April. Fifth-round pick Darius Fleming tore a knee ligament last month, likely setting up a training camp competition between Bakhtiari, who grew up in Burlingame, and seventh-round pick Cam Johnson to be the No. 4 outside linebacker.
"Somebody's going to have to fill that role," Harbaugh said. "So we'll keep looking at it and evaluating it every day."
Newcomers in Santa Clara have been surprised by the pace and intensity of Harbaugh's practices. Not Bakhtiari.
He recalls the atmosphere at San Diego as soon as Harbaugh set foot on campus. Everything immediately became a competition, and the practices between the offense and defense sometimes were more animated than the games.
Quarterback Josh Johnson, who arrived at San Diego in 2004, agreed.
"We tried to go out there and beat (the defense) every day; they tried to come out and beat us," Johnson said. "Whoever had the advantage that day in practice, we let the other side know about it. And it created a great environment for our team and carried over to the games and allowed us to win a lot of games."
San Diego went 29-6 in three seasons under Harbaugh, including 11-1 in 2005 and 2006.
Bakhtiari and his teammates may have helped nudge Harbaugh into the Toreros' head-coaching job in December 2003. But Bakhtiari said he always will be indebted to Harbaugh.
Back then, he said, he was a skinny kid who was light on talent. But he vividly remembers a meeting with Harbaugh, who told him he wasn't just good, he was great.
"I thought someone else was in the room," Bakhtiari said. "I didn't think he was talking to me."
Bakhtiari has been lining up at right outside linebacker with the second-string defense during recent practices. But he said that special teams is his best shot at making the roster.
He also noted that the practice squad is not an option. His eligibility ran out two years ago.
"It's 53 (-man roster) or bust," he said. "My job opportunities dwindled in the last couple of years."