San Francisco 49ers

Ian Williams still a mystery man as he heads into fourth season

Glenn Dorsey had never had surgery in his life. So before his procedure to repair a torn biceps tendon this month, he went to teammate Ian Williams for advice on what to expect.

After all, Williams is a recent expert on operating tables.

The 49ers nose tackle had four surgeries since suffering a broken fibula and torn ligaments in Week 2 in Seattle last season, including a spring-time complication involving the steel plate in his leg, which had to be removed and delayed his recovery.

Williams finally was cleared to practice this week when the 49ers removed him from the physically unable to perform list. But Williams said that’s merely a “paper hurdle.”

“You still have to get over that mental hurdle,” he said.

That process will occur over the next three weeks as Williams tries to return to the form that made him a starter to begin last season.

He seemed to get off to an excellent start Wednesday, lining up between veteran defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald on several plays during team drills and even taking part in a “live” tackling drill at the goal line.

That was a big step for someone who hasn’t practiced for more than 11 months.

“Running around and cutting and everything like that – that’s the easy part, you know?” Williams said before practice. “Anyone can do combine drills and things like that. But when you’re pushing against someone that’s 300, 350 pounds, that’s totally different than just running a 40 (yard dash). So I’m just excited to get back out there and see how it feels.”

Williams has been with the 49ers since they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. But coaches really don’t know what they have in him yet.

Because last season’s Week 1 opponent, Green Bay, leans heavily on its passing game, the 49ers didn’t have much need for a nose tackle, so Williams played only 10 snaps. A week later, he figured to be on the field often against Seattle’s run-heavy offense.

But he suffered the injury – when a Seahawks offensive lineman drove himself into the side of Williams’ leg – on his third snap.

The 49ers’ first three opponents this year use three or more receivers about 55 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, which charts every NFL play. That means the 49ers likely will use a nose tackle roughly 45 percent of the time to start the season.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Williams’ game is built on speed and quickness, and he admitted that Williams is still a bit of a mystery when it comes to holding the middle of the 49ers’ defense.

“There’s not a lot of regular-season snaps,” Fangio said Wednesday. “But last training camp and preseason, he was playing well for us, and we’ll see how close he is back to that form.”

Last year, Dorsey replaced Williams and played well. Now, Williams is being asked to do the same after Dorsey suffered his biceps injury on Aug. 1.

The 49ers have yet to decide whether to place Dorsey on injured reserve with a designation to return, which would allow him to play again later in the season. If not, Dorsey will not play in 2014 and is scheduled to be a free agent in March.

“I'm not going to lie to you, there’s pressure,” Williams said of trying to return to pre-injury form before the Sept. 7 opener. “This is the NFL. There’s pressure every day. But this is what we do. They put us through workouts to break through those walls of pressure.”