49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. working to cut down on fumbles

SANTA CLARA - Jeff Wilson Jr. did everything right until he didn’t.

With 2:50 remaining in the first quarter of the 49ers’ 26-23 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday, Wilson - the 49ers’ undrafted rookie running back - took a handoff from quarterback Nick Mullens, found a hole, broke a tackle ?and ran for 14 yards.

So far, so good.

As Wilson ran upfield, he approached Seahawks strong safety Brad McDougald and had a sudden choice to make: run around McDougald, or run through him. Wilson picked Option B, because he’s a collision runner. That’s his nature.

When Wilson lowered his shoulder, McDougald ducked his head, hit the football with his helmet and caused a fumble, Wilson’s third of the past three games. The Seahawks recovered the ball.

“It’s like a dagger in the heart,” Wilson said, describing the feeling he gets when he puts the ball on the ground. “It hurts. As a running back, you know in this league there are so many guys who are right by each other as far as talent. So, (fumbling) like that can set you aside and be the difference between you and the next guy. When I (fumble), I am hurting myself and my teammates, and farther down the line in my career, that can be a downfall to me.”

Since the 49ers promoted Wilson to the active roster from the practice squad on Nov. 24, he mostly has played well. He has appeared in the past four games, rushed 52 times and averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry. He seems talented enough to succeed in the NFL. Unless, of course, he keeps fumbling.

After Wilson fumbled against the Seahawks this past Sunday, the 49ers gave him just three more carries during regulation time. But during overtime, starter Matt Breida left the game with an injury, and the 49ers turned back to Wilson.

“(Running backs coach) Bobby (Turner) looks at his eyes every single play,” Shanahan said. “You can tell a guy who wants to go back in and a guy who doesn’t want to go back in. Jeff wasn’t trying to hide. He wanted an opportunity and we were confident to give that to him if it presented itself and it did when Breida went out.”

On Wilson’s first carry of overtime, he ran up the middle for 16 yards and didn’t fumble. Then, he carried the ball the next two plays and didn’t fumble those times, either. He used enough time off the clock to set up the game-winning field goal by Robbie Gould.

The 49ers trusted Wilson to close out the win even though he fumbled earlier. And he came through.

“That meant the world to me,” Wilson said. “It gave me what I need to keep going forward and not worry about the negative. For the coaches to put me back in, they don’t know much that helped my life from a personal standpoint. They don’t know what they did for me. I’m glad they did, though.”

Wilson, 23, played college football at North Texas, where in 2017 he rushed for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns and averaged a gaudy 6.5 yards per carry. But he also fumbled once every 33 carries during his college career. That’s one big reason no team drafted him despite his impressive production.

So far in the NFL, Wilson has fumbled once every 17 carries.

“You’ve got to hold on to it,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to get up and hand the ball to the ref at the end of (the run). (Wilson) tries to finish runs strong and lower his head and go through people, but you’ve got to make sure that ball’s covered and doesn’t get loose in any way.

“(The fumbling issue) did show up in college and it only gets worse in the NFL because everyone tackles (well). Almost every time there’s a tackle, people are going for the ball. And if there’s any space in there, it’s coming out.”

Wilson knows he must adjust his technique while holding the football to protect it better and stay in the league.

“We have our seven pressure points on the ball,” Wilson said. “The main one is the seventh, and that’s a mindset. Once I change my mindset, I feel like (the fumbles) will be something that can be easily fixed.”

Shanahan hopes Wilson Jr. is right about the mindset.

“We’ll see,” Shanahan said. “I do hope, and I do have confidence that he can (stop fumbling) because we see him every day. We like the person. He works at it. The game doesn’t seem too big for him. He’s very well-liked around here, not just because he’s a friendly guy, but because people respect how he works and what he does. Jeff’s not going to make excuses. He knows exactly what he did (against the Seahawks) and how big that (fumble) could have cost us. He’s going to get another opportunity. I hope he lives up to it.”

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