SANTA CLARA – They might reside on the opposite side of the locker room and duel with him on the practice field, but defensive linemen always have been among Marcus Martin's closest friends.
“When you battle with a d-lineman all day, you come back in the locker room and he's a teammate and you laugh about it,” the 49ers’ newly minted starting center said Wednesday. “They always have helped me be a better player.”
Martin will make his first NFL start Sunday at age 20. And he'll do so against a Rams defensive front that is one of the best in the NFL.
But Martin's mental sharpness – and his constant desire to learn about his position – give the 49ers confidence he can take over the job of anchoring the team's otherwise veteran offensive line.
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“He’s someone that we’ve worked with, and he’s been on top of things in meetings,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “So looking forward to seeing what he does.”
Martin, who was a third-round draft pick out of USC in May, caught Jim Harbaugh's attention late in the offseason after Martin went down with a dislocated kneecap in the team's third preseason game. Instead of drifting into the background, Martin sidled up next to his position coach, Mike Solari.
“I spent every moment of these first seven games with my coach on the sideline, identifying fronts, making calls and doing what a center does in the NFL,” Martin said.
Harbaugh has cited Martin's aggressive mental approach as one of the reasons he got the first crack at the starting center job after Daniel Kilgore went down with a season-ending ankle injury in the most recent game. Harbaugh said he liked the “command” Martin showed during a Monday practice this week.
“He was impressive today,” Harbaugh said. “Feel good about what he’s done leading up to now, the position he’s put himself in. As we’ve talked about before, he’s been very good in the classroom and he’s able to carry that onto the field.”
On Sunday, Martin will find himself facemask to facemask with another rookie, Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, whom Pro Football Focus ranks as the second best defensive tackle in the league. Donald's game is built on quickness, and he has two sacks and seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
That's where Martin's affinity for his defensive teammates – and the tricks of their trade they showed him – will come in handy, he said. While at USC, Martin said he was particularly close with defensive linemen George Uko and Leonard Williams, the latter of whom is expected to be a top pick in the upcoming draft.
“Both of those guys helped me in extra ways – things that offensive linemen can't do for you but a defensive lineman can simulate,” Martin said.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.