Veteran guard Mike Person offered some advice that stuck with 49ers rookie tackle Justin Skule when he replaced an injured Joe Staley during Sunday’s victory over the Bengals.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, take a deep breath, it’s still just football,’” Skule said Wednesday. “And so I think that’s something I’m really going to focus on this week is still the game of football. Just take a deep breath and don’t let anything get too big for myself.”
Skule, a sixth-round draft pick from Vanderbilt, didn’t begin his first NFL season remotely expecting to be surrounded by reporters with microphones and recorders in his face in the locker room. But that’s his new reality with Staley expected to be out until November with a fractured fibula. And, of course, San Francisco is 2-0, raising the pressure on Skule to protect Jimmy Garoppolo as he works back from 2018’s knee injury.
“I do like to think I do keep to myself, not a huge vocal guy,” Skule said. “(Being surrounded by reporters) is definitely different for me.”
Skule is slated to get his first career start in Sunday’s home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Staley’s place and the 49ers are exuding confidence in him. The confidence is despite the chance he wouldn’t have made the 53-man roster if not for a season-ending ankle injury during the first preseason game to Shon Coleman, who was planned to be the team’s primary swing tackle.
Skule this week is getting a crash course in playing one of the most important positions on offense. He went to Staley’s house this week to get tips from the 13-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler. He’s also been given additional practice reps before this week because Staley is given Wednesdays off as a veteran courtesy. Skule had his first NFL playing time Sunday, getting 19 snaps in the second half after Staley went down.
Kyle Shanahan on Wednesday noted Skule, a four-year starter in college, doesn’t talk all that much. Though that might not be surprising given the limited oxygen in the offensive line room with the garrulous Staley and second-year pro Mike McGlinchey keeping things light.
“Just being around here, he doesn’t talk very much, which I kind of like,” Shanahan said. “He’s just quiet, goes about his business. It’s not because he’s not confident.”
Said McGlinchey: “He’s got to loosen up a little bit. He’s not quite the rambunctious personality like me and Joe.”
But that doesn’t mean Skule won’t be prepared. He was known in college for his football acumen and reliability. He made the SEC academic honor roll three straight seasons from 2015 to 2017 and finished his career by starting 40 straight games.
“He’s real smart,” said defensive end Ronald Blair III, who battled Skule throughout training camp. “He’s really aware of all the situations on the field. ... He’s real technical with everything he does.”
Awaiting Skule is a struggling Steelers defense trying to get on the right track. Pittsburgh has ranked 12th, fifth and sixth in total defense the past three seasons. But it’s 28th in the NFL through two games after getting blown out by the Patriots in the season opener and falling, 28-26, Sunday to the Seattle Seahawks.
To some observers, Skule was a surprise addition to the 53-man roster after final cuts. Following Coleman’s injury, the 49ers brought in nine-year veteran Sam Young, who had 21 starts in his career with the Bills, Jaguars and Dolphins, to compete to replace Coleman.
But Skule won the job, though he’ll be a target on the offensive line that’s allowed just one sack of Garoppolo in two games. The 49ers enter Week 3 second in the league allowing a sack on 1.85 percent of passing attempts.
Skule’s start might force Shanahan to limit the chances for him to be in one-on-one pass blocking scenarios against Bud Dupree, a first-round pick in 2015 who has 21.0 career sacks. Shanahan could dial up more quick passes or throws off play action than usual to keep Dupree from pinning his ears back to rush the passer.
“When you lose a great player like Joe,” said Shanahan, “it heightens that a lot from the coaching staff and those are things you think about all day Tuesday and Monday. But, you also can’t get enamored with it, too.
“I’m confident that Skule will come in and by no means will he be perfect just like Joe isn’t, but the game’s not too big for him. I know he’ll battle and give us a chance to win.”
Shanahan indicated Monday the trade market for tackles might be thin, should Skule prove ineffective and need replacing. For now, the team is giving Skule a vote of confidence that he can replace Staley for two months until his fractured lower leg fully heals.
“It’s very meaningful,” Skule said, “and so hope to make them right and go out and play the best football I can.”