San Francisco 49ers

How 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. became a rare positive in a lost 2018 season

Jeff Wilson Jr., center, is tackled by Seattle Seahawks defenders Dec. 2 in Seattle. Taking over for an injured Matt Breida, Wilson amassed a team-high 134 all-purpose yards in the loss and will start Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
Jeff Wilson Jr., center, is tackled by Seattle Seahawks defenders Dec. 2 in Seattle. Taking over for an injured Matt Breida, Wilson amassed a team-high 134 all-purpose yards in the loss and will start Sunday against the Denver Broncos. AP

The 49ers, at 2-10 and contending for the top overall pick in the the 2019 NFL draft, might have a far better record if they could develop other positions at the same level as their running backs.

Because if head coach Kyle Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner have proven anything in 2018, it’s they can churn out a productive rushing attack even under dire circumstances. The problem, of course, is the team hasn’t played well in most other areas.

From Matt Breida to Raheem Mostert and most recently Jeff Wilson Jr., an undrafted rookie from North Texas slated for a big role in Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, Shanahan and Turner have made the 49ers’ group of backs the team’s most reliable asset throughout this lost season.

San Francisco enters Week 14 with the NFL’s seventh-ranked rushing offense and has been within that range throughout the year, despite losing expected starter Jerick McKinnon a week before the season opener with an ACL tear. Breida has already been ruled out of Sunday’s game, marking it the first contest he’ll miss this season due to his troublesome left ankle injury that’s been an issue for most of 2018.

Wilson’s effort during the blowout loss Sunday to the Seattle Seahawks was the latest example. He was tasked with working as the engine of the offense despite being a de facto fourth stringer who opened the year on the practice squad after averaging just 3.2 yards on 19 preseason carries.

It was Wilson’s physical, punishing style that led to a team-leading 134 all-purpose yards in Seattle and endeared him to teammates.

That’s what got him an opportunity in this league,” Shanahan said. “That’s what he does best. That’s why he’s going to make it. I hope he doesn’t lose that, for his and our sakes.”

Said quarterback Nick Mullens: “That fires me up. He brings it every carry that he’s going to get.”

One play in particular, an 11-yard run early in the second quarter, gave his team a charge it needed. Wilson bolted through the line of scrimmage and carried enough momentum to put Seahawks safety Tedric Thompson on his back.

To that point, the 49ers had just 27 net yards of offense and punted three times. Wilson let out a roar after trucking his defender, a rare moment where San Francisco’s offense was able to impose its will on Seattle’s typically imposing defense.

“Whenever you see a play like that, it definitely gets you fired up,” said tight end George Kittle, who was close to Wilson’s collision with Thompson. “The fact that he did that — he’s not scared at all, he’s a rookie that got called up from the practice squad — and he’s just running and he’s having fun out there. And it’s really fun to see that.”

The 49ers that possession got as far as Seattle’s 5-yard line, where Wilson had the ball ripped away by linebacker Bobby Wagner in a controversial fumble ruling that prevented San Francisco from scoring. But Wilson’s run where he trucked Thompson proved to be the spark that led to a season-high 452 yards of offense.

Wilson won’t be the only undrafted rookie running back with a prominent role Sunday. Broncos back Phillip Lindsay has rushed for 267 yards the past two games and leads the NFL by averaging 6.1 yards per carry as a new-found fulcrum to Denver’s offense.

Lindsay’s 937 rushing yards and eight touchdowns rank second and first, respectively, among rookie running backs. He’s behind only second-overall draft pick Saquon Barkley in yardage and tied in rushing touchdowns.

The Wilson-Lindsay matchup, in some ways, connects the past and present as it relates to the Broncos and the Shanahans. Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, shared a similar propensity for getting high-level production from unheralded running back prospects (Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, a sixth-round draft pick, is the most famous example).

Kyle Shanahan appears to be continuing that tradition with Turner at his side, who was with the Broncos from 1995-2009 and helped develop Davis and others. Turner was also with both Shanahans with the Washington Redskins from 2010-13, and stuck around for 2014 after each had left.

Shanahan was asked about the common thread between the success both he and his father have found with running backs at different stops.

“Getting with my dad in Washington, it was neat because you expect to hear all of the secrets and stuff,” Shanahan said. “It’s, ‘Alright, teach me. I’ve been watching, what are the secrets?’ You start to realize that there aren’t a ton of secrets. It’s commitment to something. It’s just being detailed in it, it’s working at it, just doing it over and over and getting good at it to where I saw it differently than him.”

Following Tunrer’s lead, being detailed and working hard is what’s allowed Wilson to make his quick ascension from the practice squad to the starting lineup in a matter of weeks. He was asked if he expected to spend the year on the practice squad or if he eventually would get his shot on Sundays.

“It didn’t matter to me,” Wilson said. “I was going to go out there and bust my tail every day, just as if the practice squad was the real game. Because I know if I didn’t get my shot this year, I’d probably get it next year. So I just wanted to continue to train myself until before the opportunity had come, no matter when it came.”

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