SANTA CLARA – When Ray-Ray Armstrong enrolled at the University of Miami, he was often compared to Sean Taylor.
Armstrong still has a Twitter handle inspired by Taylor, who was one of the game’s premier safeties when he was shot and killed at his home in 2007. While Armstrong has moved on to another position, his style of play that was patterned after Taylor is a big reason he finds himself solidly in the mix for a starting job with the 49ers.
In a bit of a surprise, 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil this week named Armstrong as one of three potential starters at inside linebacker. Armstrong, Michael Wilhoite and Gerald Hodges are on equal footing as they compete to line up alongside NaVorro Bowman in the 49ers’ starting defense.
Armstrong had a turbulent college career at Miami. He was suspended two times for a combined five games for reportedly accepting impermissible benefits as a junior. Miami dismissed him from the team in July before his senior season due to concerns about his eligibility. He transferred to an NAIA school, but was not ruled eligible and was forced to sit out his senior season.
Armstrong went undrafted in 2013, and signed with the St. Louis Rams. He appeared in all 16 games as a rookie. After being released after four games in 2014, Armstrong landed with the Raiders, playing 11 games.
Last year, Armstrong played 10 games for the Raiders with two starts. He was released two weeks after his name surfaced for allegedly taunting a police dog before a game at Pittsburgh. Charges were not filed.
The 49ers claimed Armstrong off waivers, and he appeared in the final five games. Now, he’s in the mix to be a starter.
“He’s smart, athletic ability, he’s tough, competitive,” O’Neil said of Armstrong. “He’s done a great job learning the scheme. He can blitz. So there’s not a lot to not like about him. I’m very excited about him.”
Armstrong, like Wilhoite, has a background at safety, which could help him find his niche in the 49ers’ defense. Armstrong’s nickname “Boom King” is an homage Taylor, his favorite player growing up.
“I feel like I have a lot to offer to the defense for the inside ‘backer job,” Armstrong said. “Just playing in the secondary in college, coverage kind of comes easy to me. These past couple years playing linebacker and picking up on the other schemes has helped me a lot for this one position.”
Armstrong played outside linebacker and inside linebacker while with the Raiders. His background, size (6-foot-3 and, seemingly, bigger than his listed weight of 220 pounds) and athleticism makes him a candidate for a starting job.
“You’re seeing more and more of that now in the NFL,” O’Neil said. “A lot of guys are taking the bigger safeties that played in the box and moving them to that weak side linebacker position.
“I think the first couple years in the league, he’s kind of been more of a special teams player and sometimes you find guys just because it’s the right system fit. And he’s a guy that has flourished so far. I’ll be excited when we get back to training camp to see him in the pads.”
Wilhoite started all 16 games next to Patrick Willis in 2014. He started next to Bowman last season until he missed the final four games due to a high ankle sprain.
Hodges, acquired from Minnesota in an early season trade for center Nick Easton, also believes his versatility is an asset in the competition.
“The inside ‘backers might come to the edge. We’re moving guys around,” Hodges said. “It’s OTAs, they’re trying to see who fits best where. Who can do what? Who has certain strengths? It’s about seeing what we have as a team.
“They move it around. They’re fitting it to where we’re seeing who works best with each other. It’s all an evaluation thing. It’s early in the offseason, so we’re just evaluating guys to see who fits best in the best place. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, the best guys are going to be on the field.”