49ers counting on Bethea for veteran leadership in secondary

The Indianapolis Colts had expectations for Antoine Bethea when they drafted him in 2006, but they were the grounded expectations any team would have for an undersized safety who played at Howard and lasted until the sixth round.

With Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and the Colts’ offense rocketing to big leads, Indianapolis needed a defensive back who could be used against opponents who played catch-up by trotting out three or more receivers in the second half of games. Tony Dungy and Bill Polian – the coach and general manager, respectively, at the time – figured they’d turn Bethea into a cornerback and have him compete for a role in an alignment when five defensive backs were employed.

It didn’t take long for them to change their plan.

“The first practice of minicamp – boom! – he intercepts a pass,” said Polian, an ESPN analyst. “This was his first practice. He couldn’t even find the lunch room. The second practice of minicamp, he intercepts another pass. Third practice – I think he had two interceptions. Tony walks over to me and says, ‘I think we’ll leave him at safety.’ ”

Recalled Dungy, who left the Colts after the 2008 season: “We saw a lot of things we liked in him (before the draft) – the range and the ball skills. But I don’t think we ever dreamed we would get what we ended up getting. He exceeded all our expectations.”

While Bethea, now 29 and entering his ninth season, was serendipity at safety in Indianapolis in 2006, he enters his first season with the 49ers as an indispensable figure – and easily the team’s most critical offseason acquisition. Bethea, a free agent, signed a four-year contract with the 49ers in March. He not only will take over at starting safety from well-respected Donte Whitner, he’s expected to galvanize and lead the 49ers’ largely rebuilt secondary.

Whitner and cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown – all starters since 2011 – moved on via free agency in the offseason. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver likely will start at cornerback this year, but neither has been a full-time starter. The other safety, Eric Reid, is entering his second season. The “nickel” cornerback may be rookie Jimmie Ward.

Dungy thinks Bethea is up to the task. It took only one week of spring minicamps for the Colts to see that he was starter material. It took only a week of summer training camp to see he was a leader, too.

“Just the way he picked up on things,” said Dungy, a former defensive back. “He knew what everybody else was supposed to do. And he had that demeanor that kind of calmed everybody else down. He wasn’t frazzled. He wasn’t looking for answers. And even his first year, he was someone you could talk to on the sideline: ‘What happened out there? What’s going on? What adjustments do we need to make?’ He could help even the coaches understand what was going on.”

Bethea started 14 games as a rookie, and the Colts won the Super Bowl. In eight seasons in Indianapolis, he intercepted 14 passes and made the Pro Bowl twice.

The statistic the 49ers like best: zero, as in no games missed over the past six seasons. And Polian said it’s hard to remember Bethea, only 198 pounds when he entered the league, missing any practices.

Toughness is crucial in the best and most rough-and-tumble division in the league. If the AFC South eight years ago was an elegant Indy car sprint, the NFC West is closer to a bumper-bending NASCAR smash-up.

The 49ers’ archrivals, the Seahawks, are one of the few NFL teams that still runs more than they throw, and they do so with relentless, 215-pound running back Marshawn Lynch.

The 49ers prefer to run, too. Instead of racing out to big first-half leads as the Colts did under Manning, the 49ers prefer to keep games close early and wear down opponents. That requires run support and physical play from the safeties.

No problem, Bethea said.

“Don’t get me wrong – I like to cover,” he said. “But as far as sticking my nose in there and tackling – that’s something I love. Not a lot of guys love to tackle. That’s all want-to. You have to want to do it. And I do.”

Bethea played linebacker from Pop Warner through high school, and he said the position is hard-wired into his nervous system. That he refuses to miss a game or a practice is related to his upbringing.

Bethea grew up in the military town of Norfolk, Va. His father, Larry Bethea, was in the Army for nearly 30 years, but he wasn’t the type of military father who would have his sons up at 5 a.m. to test their bed-making skills by flipping a quarter on the sheets. Nonetheless, there was an understanding in the household.

“There was always a sense of, when you leave this house, you have a name to represent – don’t throw any dirt on this name,” Antoine Bethea said. “And whatever you’re supposed to do, you go do it. And he always treated me like a young man. He never treated me like a child or a teenager.”

Polian called Bethea the “consummate professional and the consummate self starter.” Dungy said the 49ers, who have dealt with a slew of ugly, embarrassing police-blotter incidents with their players in the past two years, won’t have any problems with their new safety.

Told that after 20 minutes of sky-high praise, it sounded as if Bethea must have been one of his favorite players. Dungy laughed, paused and confessed that in an NFL locker room full of disparate personalities and characters, Bethea was the one guy who never cost his coaches a second of sleep.

“He’s one of those guys you kind of take for granted while you’re working on your problem children,” Dungy said. “So I am fond of him. I just like guys that are kind of old school – ‘I come in, do my job, and the coach never has to worry about me.’ ”

Clearly, if Dungy and Polian still were running the show in Indianapolis, Bethea would not have been allowed to leave for San Francisco.

“I was astounded when they let him go, to be honest with you,” Polian said. “That shocked me.”