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OWINGS MILLS, Maryland – Where Patrick Willis lines up to open the season will be dictated by the player who wins the right to fill in for All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
If Michael Wilhoite beats out rookie Chris Borland, Willis will move to the “mike” inside linebacker position. If Borland wins the competition, Willis will remain at the “jack,” where he played the past three seasons.
Willis said he has only one preference: Doing what’s best for the team.
“Honestly, I’ve always been a team player,” Willis said. “Whatever is going to be best for the defense is whatever coach Vic (Fangio) decides. I’m going to play my very best at either/or. Right now, I’m preparing to play the ‘mike,’ but if it happens I have to go back to ‘jack,’ that’s where I’ve played these last three years, so I can hold it down there.”
Wilhoite has the advantage of knowing the defense. He filled in for two games last season when Willis was out with a groin injury. Wilhoite has been running with the first team.
But Borland is coming on strong. The third-round draft pick stood out during a live goal-line drill against the Baltimore Ravens’ second-team offense in Sunday’s joint practice.
The 49ers expect Bowman, who sustained a torn ACL in the NFC Championship game, to begin the regular reason on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Bowman would be ineligible for the first six games while he continues his rehabilitation.
“Me and Mike, we’ve actually practiced together. We haven’t played in a game, yet, together, but we’ve practiced together the last two seasons,” Willis said. “So I have complete confidence in him.
“Chris is coming along each and every day. Still learning the defense. He understands, but understanding different concepts, understanding certain alignments. He’s a little pit bull. I love watching him play. He reminds me a lot of NaVorro. (He plays) real low and compact. It seems like they never break stride. They’re always moving and getting to the ball.”