Not much was expected of Marcell Harris during his rookie campaign. The 49ers’ sixth-round draft pick began the regular season on injured reserve, but he’s suddenly become a notable player to track as 2018 winds down.
Contributing on special teams? Maybe. Getting his feet wet by learning the playbook? Sure. Sitting out a second consecutive season with an injury? A real possibility.
But starting against the Seattle Seahawks?
“Never,” Harris said when asked about his expectations for his first year in the NFL.
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Harris, who played at Florida, could get his third consecutive start Sunday, as his playing time is a product of multiple injuries in San Francisco’s secondary.
Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt has been in and out of the lineup all season due to a nagging shoulder injury. The top two free safeties, Adrian Colbert (high ankle sprain) and Jimmie Ward (fractured forearm), landed on injured reserve. Third-string free safety D.J. Reed, who was drafted 42 spots ahead of Harris, was forced to play nickel cornerback last week, which has given Harris an unlikely shot at the starting strong safety job.
Harris was flying all over the field against the Denver Broncos. He was credited with seven tackles, including two for loss. He made back-to-back stops during a third- and fourth-down sequence in the fourth quarter that proved crucial in the 20-14 victory.
The improved play, particularly his ability to make tackles in the open field, came in stark contrast to his first start the previous week in Seattle. Harris missed three tackles while San Francisco allowed a season-worst 168 rushing yards during the 43-16 blowout.
The 49ers allowed just 84 yards on the ground against Denver, with Harris’ improved tackling proving crucial. His quick ascension is notable, given he sat the majority of the preseason with a hamstring injury after missing his final college season in 2017 with a torn Achilles, which was the key reason he was drafted late.
“I wasn’t really thinking about how it was going to go because I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not going to back down from (any) challenge,” Harris said. “... Having that adversity on your back, that was one of the (most) challenging parts.”
Tartt hasn’t practiced this week since aggravating his shoulder injury while tackling Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett on a kickoff return Dec. 2, which points to Harris getting another chance to prove his value to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who liked what he saw from Harris’ 2016 season with the Gators.
“Violence, speed, no hesitation,” Saleh said. “He’s a very physical defender. He’s showing what he showed on tape. He’s got a long way to go, for sure, but he’s exciting to work with.”
Draft analysts surmised Harris could have been a Day 2 pick in the draft if not for his injury.
“He could easily have just balled out, too, and been a first-rounder,” Saleh said. “You never know how those things turn out, especially since he never got the test. I don’t know about all that. I do know that we really liked his tape and felt like he was someone that could contribute to what we’re trying to get done.”
Injury report – Receivers Marquise Goodwin (calf) and Dante Pettis (foot) popped up on the team-issued injury report following Thursday’s practice. Same for defensive lineman Ronald Blair (ankle), who’s second on the team with 5 1/2 sacks.
Otherwise, Tartt (shoulder) and linebacker Mark Nzeocha (groin) missed practice for the second day in a row.
Running back Matt Breida (ankle), linebacker Malcolm Smith (Achilles) and slot cornerback K’Waun Williams (knee) were limited. Cassius Marsh (concussion) was also listed as limited after not participating in Tuesday’s practice.