The difference between life in college and the NFL, Chris Borland says, is that while a college day is filled by economics, history, sociology and football, an NFL day is composed of football, football, football and more football.
In that way, the 49ers’ rookie linebacker feels his gridiron education has expanded dramatically in the past two months alone.
“I feel like I’ve played an entire year of college – that much more experienced, that much more comfortable,” he said Wednesday. “Only having football makes it a whole lot easier, and I think I’ve grown a lot in the last couple of months.”
That has to be reassuring to San Francisco.
During a preseason game two months ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning made Borland and safety Craig Dahl look silly in throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to wide-open tight end Julius Thomas in the second quarter. Borland said he and Dahl were on the same page but with the wrong call.
“It was on Craig and myself and, yeah, I could have made the right call,” Borland said.
The rookie will get another crack at Manning, Thomas and the Broncos on Sunday. Starting inside linebacker Patrick Willis has a toe injury that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says will not keep Willis out long term but promises to hold him out of the game in Denver.
That means that instead of inside linebackers Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who have nine Pro Bowl invitations between them, the 49ers will go with Michael Wilhoite and Borland, who have eight NFL regular-season starts between them.
They all belong to Wilhoite.
Borland was a May draft pick who has used a combination of intelligence, work ethic and aggressive play to overcome an everyman frame that can lead to him being mistaken for a equipment manager in the 49ers’ locker room. At 5-foot-11, Borland was one of the shortest linebackers in this year’s draft, and his 291/2-inch arms were by far the shortest at his position.
But he still impressed general manager Trent Baalke to the point where the 49ers selected him in the third round.
“He’s everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint,” Baalke said at the time. “He loves the game. He’s a smart football player. He’s an extremely instinctive football player. He’s overcome that lack of arm length. He’s overcome that lack of speed that is being talked about. He’s just a baller.”
That savvy was on display Monday after Willis left the game late in the second quarter. Borland had two tackles, knocked away two passes and the 49ers held the Rams to three points in the second half.
“He’s got a unique style – it’s different than anything I’ve ever seen,” fellow linebacker Dan Skuta said of Borland. “He’s really nifty – I think is a good word for Chris – the way he slides around, going around blocks and everything.”
Borland was quick to credit teammates – Wilhoite, who calls the defensive plays with Willis out, and a defensive line that gives the linebackers a clear path to the ball.
“Playing behind Justin (Smith) and Ray (McDonald) and Ian (Williams), you’re in pretty easy shape,” Borland said. “You’re not getting double teams coming on you fast. It’s a blessing to play behind those guys.”
In Denver, meanwhile, Manning hasn’t stopped looking in Thomas’ direction.
The Broncos’ tight end leads the league with nine touchdown catches, and Borland said Manning is proficient at manipulating favorable matchups for Thomas, who is 6-5 and has 33-inch arms.
Does Borland think the Broncos’ mastermind quarterback will target him on Sunday?
“I’m sure they’ll isolate me in situations,” he said. “But they can’t stray too far from who they are.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.