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 on the 49ers.
“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’ new starting center said Wednesday. “They always have helped me be a better player.”
Martin will make his first NFL start Sunday. At 20, he’ll be the youngest player on the field. And he’ll be facing a St. Louis Rams defensive front that is one of the best in the NFL.
But the rookie’s mental sharpness and desire to learn about his position give the 49ers confidence he can take over the job of anchoring the team’s 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, a third-round draft pick out of USC in May, caught Jim Harbaugh’s attention late in the offseason after suffering a dislocated kneecap in the team’s third exhibition 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 (regular-season) 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 job after Daniel Kilgore went down because of a season-ending ankle injury against the Denver Broncos. 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 be face mask to face mask with another rookie, Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, ranked by the Pro Football Focus 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 close to 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.
Lattimore practices – Running back Marcus Lattimore went through his first practice of the season Wednesday.
Lattimore, recovering from a knee injury suffered in October 2012 at South Carolina, remains on the non-football injury list. The 49ers have three weeks to evaluate him and his surgically repaired right knee before deciding whether to add him to the active roster.
Lattimore practiced with the team late last year, but he said he is much closer to being in playing shape this year.
“I’m stronger, definitely quicker,” he said. “I didn’t have any confidence going out there last year. I feel stronger; my knee feels better.”
Healthier overall – A 49ers team riddled with injuries against the Broncos in its most recent game returned to practice Wednesday nearly intact.
Linebacker Patrick Willis (toe), safety Jimmie Ward (quadriceps) and cornerback Tramaine Brock were listed as limited participants. But every member of the active roster at least was on hand for practice. That includes defensive end Justin Smith, who normally has Wednesdays off.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.