Michael Wilhoite’s career path to the NFL is already a screenplay-in-waiting.
From NCAA Division II Washburn to one season in the now-defunct United Football League to an athletic shoe salesman to an undrafted free agent with the 49ers, Wilhoite’s life script rivals anything Hollywood could create. But the main scenes in his story are yet to be written. The outline for those scenes could be forming during these three weeks of the 49ers offseason practices.
With inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman expected to miss a significant part of the year as he recovers from a torn ACL, Wilhoite is poised to compete for his starting position. The 6-foot, 240-pound Wilhoite started for an injured Patrick Willis last season and tallied 20 combined tackles and a pass defensed in those two games. WIlhoite played six positions at Washburn. None of them was linebacker. How’s that for a plot twist?
“I think I did my best, obviously, I had a lot of help around me. Last year I had NaVorro standing next to me,” Wilhoite said of his first two career starts. “Everybody is looking out for each other everybody is helping each other improve, so it makes my job a lot easier.”
Wilhoite is not looking for easy during these offseason practices, otherwise known as organized team activities. Signed in 2011 and added to the 49ers practice squad, the Kansas native overcame the odds and naysayers just to secure a spot on the 49ers’ roster.
“Everybody works hard. That’s the standard we set especially with Pat [Willis] and Bo,” Wilhoite said. “You see that day in and day out.”
Wilhoite sees OTAs as an opportunity to work on the finer points of his game. Along with learning the nuances of both inside linebacker positions in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system, his goals are to work on those techniques that will help him improve his coverage and his ability to shed blocks. That’s just to start.
“There’s not one thing I want to do better, it’s everything,” he said. “To be a complete linebacker especially on this team and in this system, you have to be able to do everything not well, but great, especially replacing a guy like NaVorro or Pat or anyone of us who play on this defense. If you’re going to be the No. 1 defense you have to be good at everything. You have to be able to do everything great.”
Not to be overlooked in WIlhoite’s NFL success story is his athleticism. His pro day results in the 40 yard dash, 3-cone drill, vertical jump and 20 yard shuttle all would have ranked in the top 10 among linebackers who took part in the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine, which included Bowman. This season, Willhoite’s ability combined with a starting opportunity could lead to an entertaining finale.
“We’re always trying to find new ways to get better, try to do something different to improve this team and take that next step.” Wilhoite said. “We’ve been close, but the ultimate goal hasn’t been reached, and that’s the place we want to be.”