Najee Toran’s first start at UCLA in 2014 didn’t quite go to plan. The guard was benched afterward and told to switch to defense. Yet four years later, he’s a candidate to make his first career start Sunday for the 49ers.
Not on defense, but at guard.
The true freshman from Houston, playing in his first college game, struggled while the Bruins’ offensive line allowed five sacks to Virginia. Toran got demoted and moved to defensive tackle where he spent the most of the following season. But he kept his focus.
“If you look into it too much, you’ll get distracted from what you’re supposed to be doing,” Toran said.
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UCLA finished 2015 at 8-4 with a berth in the Foster Farms Bowl. But their once-deep offensive line was getting depleted. One starter, Alex Redmond, left for the NFL draft. Fred Ulu-Perry transferred to Hawaii. Kenny Lacy was out after suffering a hand injury in the regular-season finale against USC.
Suddenly Toran was asked to switch back to the offensive line out of necessity. UCLA lost to Nebraska, 37-29, in the game played at Levi’s Stadium, where Toran might have to start for the 49ers at right guard on Sunday, also out of necessity.
“You just play ball and wait for your time. It’ll happen for you,” Toran said. “Seize the moment once you get it.”
Toran started 23 games at guard for UCLA the next two seasons. He was elevated from the practice squad this week, becoming San Francisco’s only undrafted rookie on the 53-man roster. He’s the de facto fourth-string guard, but he may start against the Detroit Lions due to injuries to Mike Person (foot), Joshua Garnett (dislocated toe) and Erik Magnuson (hamstring).
Toran was largely an afterthought addition in the spring. He wasn’t invited to the scouting combine and stands just 6-foot-2, short for an offensive lineman. Garnett, Person and Magnuson are all at least 6-4.
“To me, it’s not a big deal,” Toran said. “I just look at it like, okay, my heart is the size of — you name it. My heart is big. That’s what’s going to take me a long way, which it has.”
Kyle Shanahan confirmed on Friday that Toran is the favorite to start while Magnuson is unlikely to get healthy in time. Magnuson returned to practice this week following a hamstring injury suffered Week 2 of the preseason. He said it was a six-to-eight week injury. Saturday will mark four weeks to the day. He was listed as questionable on Friday.
Toran played well enough in practice this week to surpass Matt Tobin, a six-year veteran, on the depth chart. Toran also benefited from spending training camp with the 49ers, while Tobin was with the Patriots before getting released during final cuts.
“Those guys both got the reps all week, and Toran won those reps,” Shanahan said. “He did a better job, and I think it’s a huge advantage for him that he’s had a lot more experience and knows what’s going on. Any time you have more experience in a system and have gotten more reps, there’s a huge advantage for you and I think that’s what helped him win that spot this week.”
Left tackle Joe Staley said Toran’s adjustment to the NFL is more mental than physical. At guard, he’s tasked with recognizing things quickly, like interior blitzes and stunts.
“It’s the same every year with every rookie that comes in, regardless if you draft him or not. Just getting up to speed,” Staley said. “It’s just the level of speed that everything is at this level. How much faster you have to play mentally, understanding what defenses are trying to do with specific plays and all that.”
Toran is one of the few NFL players without a wikipedia page — and he had just 189 followers on Twitter as of Friday evening, speaking to how far below the radar he’s flown since last playing in college.
“I don’t need no wikipedia. I don’t need none of that,” he said. “I’m all about football, that’s about it.”