The long arms. The white, long-sleeved shirt beneath his 49ers jersey. A number 9 on his chest.
If you watched Rams quarterback Austin Davis get dragged down from behind last Sunday you may have wondered whether Aldon Smith’s suspension had ended a couple of weeks early.
It didn’t. The second-quarter sack came from No. 59, rookie Aaron Lynch, who has gone from meager playing time to probable starter Sunday against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Outside linebacker Dan Skuta, who has been starting in place of Smith, missed every practice because of a sprained ankle and is questionable. If Skuta can’t play, Ahmad Brooks will start on the right side while Lynch plays on the left.
Without Smith, one of the most talented pass rushers in the league, the 49ers’ sack numbers are down. Their 13 sacks are tied for 25th in the league, and Brooks, who has been the bookend to Smith the past three years, hasn’t picked up the slack.
A national report last week said the 49ers tried to deal Brooks to Cleveland before last month’s trade deadline. The 49ers denied it, but it makes sense given the veteran linebacker’s so-so play and a salary-cap figure that jumps to $9 million next season.
Another reason Brooks may have been expendable is that Lynch has played well in recent games.
The rookie was a bit of a gamble in the draft even when the 49ers took him in the fifth round. He was a budding star at Notre Dame as a freshman, abruptly left that school for lower-profile South Florida, and then underperformed there. Lynch’s work ethic at South Florida was questioned, a knock that was underscored after the draft when the school’s strength and conditioning coach surprisingly took to Twitter to chide the 49ers for selecting Lynch.
“Clearly, integrity & character are not a priority,” Hans Straub wrote of the 49ers. He later resigned over the post.
The 49ers had inside information about Lynch.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has known South Florida’s head coach, Willie Taggart, since Taggart was a prep star in Bradenton, Fla., in the early 1990s. Taggart later was an assistant coach for Harbaugh at Stanford and they were in each other’s wedding party.
Taggart told Harbaugh that Lynch had been lackadaisical early at South Florida. But Taggart, who was hired in December 2012, also had seen the defensive lineman make strides in his final season. All five of his sacks in 2013 came in the second half of the season.
“I thought the first half of the season he was trying so hard to live up to everybody else’s expectations, and he really wasn’t playing within the system,” Taggart said. “Once he started doing that, his play improved.”
Lynch also took better care of his body.
At Notre Dame, he was 270 pounds. He had to sit out a season after transferring, and when he finally began practicing at South Florida, he was about 240 pounds.
“I think a lot had to do with work ethic,” Taggart said. “I don’t think he took a lot of pride in taking care of his body and working hard in the weight room. I just think that the year he sat out, he lost a lot that year and it was kind of like a little setback.”
Lynch replaced the lost weight after the 49ers drafted him. He hit the scales at 276 pounds at the start of training camp but said he is about 263 pounds now. That’s comparable to Smith’s weight and, according to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, gives Lynch the right combination of power and quickness.
“He’s naturally strong,” Fangio said. “I have no idea what he can lift. But he’s football strong, he’s got football-functional strength. He can place his hands on someone and stop them or knock them back.”
Fangio also said Lynch’s fall to the fifth round may have been a blessing for both the 49ers and Lynch.
“It was probably the first time in his life that he wasn’t so sought after and wasn’t ‘the’ guy,” Fangio said. “It probably helped him.”
So far this season, power has been Lynch’s forte.
Though he has just two sacks, he’s been adept at collapsing the pocket and making quarterbacks uncomfortable. Lynch, the guy who was slammed by his strength coach, said his gains have come in the weight room.
“I feel like I probably take it a lot more seriously now that I’m in the NFL than I did in college,” he said. “I took it seriously in college but not from the standpoint where you get in every other day. I’m using it as something I need to do. Because everybody in the NFL’s strong.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.