HOUSTON -- Officially, All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman will miss at least the first six games of the regular season.
And, officially, the 49ers are holding off on nominating the player to replace him.
The leading candidate appears to be Michael Wilhoite, who started two games last season when Patrick Willis was sidelined with a groin strain. Willis and Wilhoite played together last week in the 49ers’ third exhibition game and appeared to work well together.
But 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is not ready to name Wilhoite as the starter quite yet.
“He hasn’t proven that yet totally, but we’ll wait to after Thursday,” Fangio said of the 49ers' exhibition finale against the Houston Texans. “Give these younger guys a good, healthy dose of snaps and see if they can make some progress. We’re confident in Mike and we think he’ll do fine in there like he did last year in those couple games he played.”
Bowman was moved to Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform, which means he is ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season. The 49ers are hoping for a mid-sesason return.
“Bow will definitely be missed, but he’ll be back when the time is right,” Patrick Willis said. “As it always is, when one guy goes down, another guy has to step up. That’s what this team is about.”
Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland, a third-round pick from Wisconsin, are the candidates to replace Bowman. Willis has more history with Wilhoite, who enters his third season with the 49ers.
“I can count on Mike. I have complete faith in him,” Willis said. “If Chris gets out there, I know he’s going to be prepared. He works hard. I know he’s going to be ready as well.”
One telling play happened Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, tested the 49ers when running back Ryan Matthews carried on a fourth-and-1 play off the left side.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith set the edge, forcing Matthews back inside. Wilhoite and Willis converged on Matthews to stop him short of the first down.
“It was great. That was a big stop,” Willis said. “Mike came through and cleaned him up good. But there are going to be plays like that, where it’s going to be us two and times when it’s us individually have to make plays.”
Said Wilhoite, “It felt real good. We’d just turned the ball over. Short field. You give up three (points) or you give up seven. And we ended up coming up with zero, so that was great. For them to try to test us on fourth and 1, and for us to stand up to the test and pass it with flying colors and get off the field and give our offense the ball back.”
Wilhoite said he feels comfortable with working alongside Willis, who has been named to the Pro Bowl team in each of his seven NFL seasons. If Wilhoite wins the job, Willis will move back to the “mike” position, which lines up on the tight end side of the formation.
“I think we’re feeding off each other and communicating well and vibing well on the field,” Wilhoite said. “The No. 1 thing is chemistry, and you got to know who you’re working with and what he’s seeing, and what he’s thinking. We’re doing well with that, and we’ll continue to get better as we work through this week and next week and into the season.”