Twelve of the 44 players who got on the field Sunday for the 49ers are rookies – if you can still call them that at this stage of the season.
“When you play in this league, you have to grow up fast,” said veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell, one of only two 30-somethings on San Francisco’s defense. “(The rookies) are starting to play with more awareness. I’m proud of these young guys.”
Youth has been a 49ers theme throughout 2017 as coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have overhauled the roster and, nearly without fail, have chosen youth over experience every step of the way. The difference now is that the 49ers are young and figuring out how to win.
On Sunday the defense was led by first-round draft pick Reuben Foster, who had a team-high eight tackles, and by seventh-rounder Adrian Colbert, whose fourth-quarter forced fumble – against the 49ers’ toughest opponent, Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins – essentially sealed the victory.
“I’d seen the screen and attacked on it like I usually do,” Colbert said of the play. “When I see something, I go full speed, and I saw (No.) 10 (Hopkins). I was trying to hit him all game and I finally got my opportunity.”
“That was huge,” Mitchell said. “When we get in games like that where the other team has an opportunity, we’ve got to find a way to get the ball. For a young team, we’re starting to take advantage of certain situations and playing with a little more awareness. It’s good to see those guys out there making those plays.”
A week earlier in Chicago, a 33-yard catch and run by fifth-round draft pick Trent Taylor helped set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal.
On Sunday in Houston, Taylor and fellow rookie receiver Kendrick Bourne combined for 56 offensive snaps while another rookie wideout, Victor Bolden Jr., handled kick-return duties until he left the game with what the 49ers called a sprained ankle.
When Greg Mabin replaced Dontae Johnson at cornerback in the third quarter, it gave the 49ers two rookie cornerbacks – third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, who had two big tackles against the Texans, is the other – to go along with Colbert in the secondary.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo arrived just as the young 49ers were unofficially shedding their rookie status and has provided a big boost to the team’s December surge.
“There’s little things that go into winning, like putting in the extra time in the film room, on the field, whatever it may be,” Garoppolo said. “I mean I can remember as a rookie if you don’t know something, you just have to see the older guys do it and kind of follow them as they go. So it’s a learning process but like I said before, I think we’re going in the right direction. We just have to keep working every day.”
Et cetera – Witherspoon left Sunday’s game with what turned out to be a sprained MCL ligament in his knee. Shanahan said the Sacramento native has a chance to play Sunday, when the 49ers host the Tennessee Titans.
▪ Shanahan said that Johnson’s benching in the third quarter was not meant to be permanent and that Johnson didn’t have a bad snap after he returned to the field in relief of Witherspoon. If Witherspoon can’t play Sunday, Johnson and Mabin likely would start at cornerback.
▪ Shanahan said didn’t know if tackle Trent Brown would play against the Titans after he missed Sunday’s game. Brown’s shoulder felt worse coming out of the team’s Dec. 3 game against the Chicago Bears, Shanahan said, and he held himself out of the Texans game.