SANTA CLARA — Derek Carrier’s decisions to attend a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and drop basketball for football paid off when he earned a spot on the 49ers’ roster this season after spending most of the past two years on NFL practice squads.
Now he could get the biggest chance of his career.
With leading tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald injured, Carrier is expected to play a heavy dose of snaps when the 49ers (1-1) visit the Arizona Cardinals (2-0) on Sunday. Carrier caught his first three passes for 41 yards in the 28-20 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday after Davis and McDonald went down.
“He plays fearless,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He goes out, he’s going to give you everything he has and he’s willing to go and make a play.”
Carrier’s career has come quite a long way.
He played football and basketball in his first two years at Beloit College, a liberal arts school in Wisconsin.
He chose to focus on football his final two years, went undrafted and spent part of 2012 on the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad before playing two games with the 49ers late last season.
Carrier said he went with football instead of basketball because it was a better fit. By his junior year, he said he was a small forward playing at 225 pounds.
“I probably outweighed everyone on the court by 30 pounds,” said Carrier, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs about 250 pounds these days.
Carrier’s time on the hardwood wasn’t a total loss, though. He said his basketball experience helped hone his footwork and hand-eye coordination, which are valuable traits as a blocker and pass catcher in the NFL.
“I think the basketball aspect deals more with just general athleticism,” Carrier said. “I think a lot of the moves you have in basketball are similar, posting up, being able to move with your feet and your hands, it translates on the football field.”
Carrier turned down an offer to be a preferred walk-on at Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin for Beloit because he didn’t want to wait two or three years to play — and he wasn’t thinking about an NFL career back then, anyway.
Carrier started all four years at Beloit, setting school records for receptions (189), yards (3,111) and touchdowns (29). But it still wasn’t enough to get drafted, especially from a Division III school.
He worked his way up from the practice squad, first with the Eagles and then the 49ers. He finally got a chance last November — albeit a much smaller one — when backup tight end Garrett Celek was out with a hamstring injury.
Carrier should get more time Sunday, but said he’s approaching this week like any other.
“I just try to focus individually on what I need to do to help the team win on Sunday. I just go out there and execute and do the best I can,” he said.
Davis has a left ankle injury that had him on crutches Wednesday and walking with an exaggerated limp in front of reporters in the locker room Thursday. McDonald missed practice for the second consecutive day because of an injured knee.
PRIOR McDONALD INCIDENT
San Jose police on Thursday released a report about a May argument at 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald’s San Jose home where a woman allegedly brandished a gun, about three months before an Aug. 31 clash that led to McDonald’s domestic-violence arrest.