Santa Clara, Calif. • Fred Warner isn’t being given time to ease into his NFL career.
The rookie for the San Francisco 49ers is slated to start in his debut on Sunday in Minnesota at a relatively new position of middle linebacker with all the responsibilities that come with calling the defensive signals.
“I’m very excited, being this will be my first start,” Warner said. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m as prepared as possible heading into that game on Sunday. I’m just going to do what I do, which is ball out and make plays and be the leader out there as the Mike.”
The Niners drafted Warner in the third round out of BYU in part because of his ability to guard tight ends, running backs and even slot receivers in the passing game as an outside linebacker.
But Warner has spent most of his time on the inside for the 49ers and is filling the void created by the two-game suspension that has sidelined Reuben Foster.
Now instead of being counted on to show off his coverage skills in space, Warner will need to take on much bigger offensive linemen in the run game for San Francisco.
“I feel like it’s kind of my natural position, you could say,” Warner said. “Obviously, I didn’t do a lot of that in college. But just being out there, I feel like if I wasn’t as natural, I probably wouldn’t be doing as well as I am — and being in the position I’m in.”
Playing middle linebacker comes with lots of responsibility as Warner will be the man relaying the defensive calls from coordinator Robert Saleh to the rest of the defense.
It’s a task he welcomes and that his coaches feel he is more than prepared to handle.
“He was one of, if not the smartest interviews I’ve ever had personally at the combine for a linebacker,” Saleh said. “He’s picked it up well. He’s got great command of it. He’s got a long way to go. I don’t want to crown him quite yet, but he’s a rookie, he’s going to have his peaks and valleys, but we have great confidence in him.”
Warner said he never doubted he was physical enough to play in the box and said most of the critics who said he couldn’t just hadn’t seen him do it. Saleh credited San Francisco’s scouts for finding plays from Senior Bowl week and other games that showed that Warner was willing to take on the contact that he will have to deal with in the middle of the NFL defense.
Saleh said that showed up again in the preseason and he has no questions about Warner’s physicality and ability to tackle.
The bigger challenge this week might come in dealing with Minnesota’s offense that relies heavily on run-pass options that make life difficult on linebackers and has star running back Dalvin Cook healthy again after last year’s season-ending knee injury.
Warner said he has studied film of Cook from last year and Eagles games from last year to try to get a sense of what kind of offense new coordinator John DeFilippo runs. He particularly watched how Philadelphia played against Atlanta and the Chargers last season since those teams run a similar defensive scheme to San Francisco’s.
Dealing with the RPOs that the Niners are anticipating will be key to their success.
“It puts stress on the defense as a whole if you’re not prepared for it,” Warner said. “So that’s why we’re kind of making some adjustments to make sure we’re not getting hit in certain areas where we’re not protected.”
NOTES: LB Malcolm Smith (hamstring) is doubtful. ... LB Dekoda Watson injured his hamstring in practice and will miss the game. ... T Erik Magnuson (hamstring) is also out Sunday.