No offense to Scott McKillop, but he will never be mistaken for Patrick Willis, the 49ers’ perennial Pro Bowl linebacker.
That said, this is the NFL, where losing any contributor has a complicated domino effect on the lineup and the roster. When McKillop tore his left ACL and patellar tendon at practice Wednesday, and underwent surgery at Stanford Medical Center today, it created some holes – and some opportunities – within the 49ers.
Most obviously, McKillop will be missed dearly on special teams. Coach Mike Singletary has placed renewed emphasis on the kicking teams this season, and McKillop was expected to be a key contributor. He played virtually every snap on special teams a year ago and led the 49ers with 31 tackles.
“We want to have as many guys ready to go on Sunday who understand their role, who understand the importance of special teams. And Scott was one of those guys,” said Michael Robinson, another teams player. “He really got it. He understood it. It mattered to him. I think a lot of guys in the National Football League, they don’t put importance in special teams.”
McKillop, a fifth-round draft choice in 2009, certainly did.
In his absence, players such as Curtis Taylor, Glen Coffee, Ahmad Brooks and Joe Jon Finley will be asked to contribute more. And it could affect the prospects of Brit Miller, who was backing up McKillop at most spots on special teams. Miller has been impressive at fullback thus far; if he becomes a core special teamer, it will be hard to keep him off the 53-man roster.
McKillop’s injury is a little harder to untangle on defense. Willis and Takeo Spikes are the unquestioned starters, Willis at the Mike position and Spikes at the Ted. McKillop had been backing up Spikes, a slot that promised to get him onto the field in 2010 because the Niners are hoping to limit the veteran’s playing time.
The loss of McKillop immediately meant more repetitions for NaVorro Bowman, the rookie third-round pick from Penn State. Bowman has been coming along slowly, but the 49ers could be grooming him as Spikes’ eventual replacement. He now moves from third team to second.
“He knows his role right now is to pick up those calls and get it done,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said of Bowman. “From a physical standpoint, he’s been pretty physical up front. He can strike, he can bend, and he’s got good movement skills inside. So I’m excited about the young gentleman.”
The question is whether Bowman has a chance to be the first linebacker off the bench. Singletary and Manusky have been telling everyone that the inside linebacker positions are more interchangeable than in years past. And Matt Wilhelm, who is Willis’ primary backup, confirmed as much this morning when he said that after McKillop’s injury, Manusky told Wilhelm he’d be the “swing guy.”
“Anytime Takeo doesn’t practice, I’ll probably end up playing the strongside ‘backer, as I did last year when Takeo was down with an injury,” Wilhelm explained. “But I think that’s part of why I’m here. I’m a smart guy, I know both, I can play both, and right now’s the time for me to kind of tune in both and be ready to play at any point.”
It’s one of the ironies of working in a hyper-competitive environment like the NFL. Bowman praised McKillop for helping him “since the day I walked in,” but now stands to benefit from his disappearance.
“A good man went down, another guy has to step up,” Bowman said. “If the coaches want me to be that guy I’ll take that role and speed up the progress and just have to grow up as an NFL player.”
The awkwardness is even more pronounced for Wilhelm, who counted McKillop as one of his best friends on the team. He says he’s praying for his buddy, but he’s also ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Coach Singletary talked about it all offseason – it’s gonna be the most competitive camp that he’s had here since he’s been not only the head coach, but a linebacker coach,” Wilhelm said. “And I realize that me personally, I was in one of those situations, and I’m trying to do as much as I can each and every day to show these coaches that I want to be a part of this 49er football team, and that I can contribute on Sundays.”