Wilson steps up in 49ers' backfield

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SANTA CLARA — Next man up.

Jeff Wilson, yet another undrafted backup running back, will get a chance to shine for the 49ers this Sunday because the starter is injured. Starter Matt Breida sprained his left ankle last Sunday during warmups before the 49ers’ 43-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He will not play in the 49ers’ upcoming game against the Denver Broncos.

“I’ve been dealing with it all year long,” Breida said Wednesday in the 49ers’ locker room. “Not 100 percent guaranteed I will be back next week (against the Seahawks). I have to take it day by day and see how it feels.”

Breida, an undrafted free agent in 2017, was the backup to starting running back Jerick McKinnon before the season started. But McKinnon tore his ACL, so Breida became the starter. And Breida has played extremely well. He’s averaging 5.6 yards per carry — third best in the NFL among qualified running backs.

Breida first injured his left ankle Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. The next few games, Breida split carries with fellow undrafted free agent Raheem Mostert, who also excelled. Mostert averaged 7.7 yards per carry before a broken arm ended his season.

Every undrafted 49ers running back seems to run well. And now it’s Wilson’s turn.

Breida played through ankle pain last Sunday and struggled — he gained just six yards on five carries. But his injury created an opportunity for Wilson, who took advantage. Wilson gained 61 yards on the ground and 73 yards through the air for 34 yards total.

“He’s going to be a great running back in this league once he gets the opportunity to show what he can do,” Breida said of Wilson.

Wilson spent the first 11 weeks of the season on the 49ers’ practice squad. The 49ers called him up to the 53-man roster during the bye week, two weeks after Mostert broke his arm.

Wilson was ready.

“I was going to go out there and bust my tail every day just as if the practice squad was the real game,” Wilson said. “I knew even if I didn’t get my shot this year, I probably would get it next year. I wanted to continue to train myself before that opportunity came.”

Wilson, who played college football at North Texas, made his NFL debut Week 12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and rushed seven times for 33 yards. The next week, he played the Seahawks and made quite an impression.

“He’s a hard runner,” Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said of Wilson on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “To watch him run downhill against that Seattle defense was impressive. That’s a physical defense, a run-and-hit defense, and he did a great job.

“There are a lot of guys in this league just waiting for their chance to break out, and he’s one of those guys. The game is not too big for him. He plays like he belongs. That’s so important for young guys to understand — when you get your chance to play, you have to play like you belong. He does that.”

Wilson showed he belongs late in the first quarter against the Seahawks. The 49ers were losing 6-0 at the time and needed a spark. Wilson provided it. He took the handoff, sprinted to his left, cut upfield, gained 10 yards, lowered his shoulder, ran over Seahawks free safety Tedric Thompson and gained one more yard.

“That play brought a lot of juice to the whole team,” quarterback Nick Mullens said. “(Wilson) can definitely make a difference. Coach Shanahan talks about you can be a leader in a lot of ways, whether it’s a vocal leader, being a leader by your actions or being a leader by the way you play. Whatever is going to make people better, that’s being a leader. On that play, Jeff was the leader of our team. He made people better around him by making that play. It boosted our energy.”

Later in the first half, Wilson injured his foot and left the game shortly. But he returned and played well. On Wednesday, he said his foot feels fine. The 49ers did not include him in their injury report.

Still, Wilson’s punishing, hard-running style could lead to more injuries in the future. Shanahan doesn’t sound too concerned.

“That’s his style,” Shanahan said of Wilson. “That’s what got him an opportunity in this league. That’s what he does best. That’s why he’s going to make it. I hope he doesn’t lose that, for his and our sakes. He runs hard and that’s what he does well. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy, and he keeps getting better and better.”

And if they can’t keep Wilson healthy?

Next man up.


The 49ers placed linebacker Dekoda Watson on the injured reserve list with a torn calf. He will miss the rest of the season. To replace Watson on the active roster, the 49ers called up linebacker Pita Taumoepenu from the practice squad.

The 49ers acquired Taumoepenu in the sixth round of the 2017 draft. He appeared in two games last season and recorded zero sacks.

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