Small school? Seventh round? Adams doesn’t care

A word to the wise: Don’t challenge Phillip Adams to a game of old maid, or Risk, or dominoes, unless you plan to bring your A game.

“I want to win,” Adams said this week, laughing at his own expense. “My brother’s the same way, my sister. If we’re gonna do something, even if we’re playing a game of cards, man, we want to win. Me and my brother play spades all the time, and he gets mad at me because I play the wrong hand sometimes. We’re mad at each other. I’m mad at myself, too. We’re just a whole competitive family.”

That extends to Adams’ father, who worked hard as a machinist and even harder when he became a truck driver. And it applies to his mother, a former school teacher who was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident last October, and is trying to recover her abilities.

“I ain’t gonna let them down,” Adams said.

That competitive spirit goes a long way toward explaining why Adams is threatening to stick around past Saturday.

Flash back to early May. A week after the draft, Niners personnel director Trent Baalke educated local writers with a film session on the team’s recent picks. Later he showed much of the same videotape to season-ticket holders at the State of the Franchise event. Both times, he offered detailed cut-ups of guys like USC’s Taylor Mays and Syracuse’s Rutgers’ Anthony Davis. When it came to Adams, Baalke basically kept rewinding the same grainy play – an interception thrown right at Adams’ jersey numbers, with no receiver within 10 yards.

Adams didn’t exactly have the pedigree of a can’t-miss NFL cornerback. But heading into the final preseason game, the seventh-round draft choice from South Carolina State is on the verge of beating the odds and landing a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster.

Adams’ confidence was evident from the outset, but it took a while for his talent to catch up. He started making plays at cornerback a couple weeks into training camp, and really emerged in the preseason games. Lately he has been working with the No. 2 defense, and even got work with the first team in dime subpackage.

“In college I was able to make a lot of plays, and the process was kind of slowed up here, because I had to learn the plays and stuff like that,” Adams admitted. “I was too tight, you know? I was too tight as a player, and I wasn’t able to make no plays because I was trying to figure out, ‘Where am I supposed to be on this drop?’ and ‘Where am I supposed to be on that drop?’ Now it’s like I’m a looser player. So I can make breaks on the ball, and I know where my help is. … And I think that’s what’s helping me right now.”

Also helping is his emergence as a punt returner. According to Adams, he ran back two punts for touchdowns toward the end of his junior year at South Carolina State. He nearly had a third at Appalachian State, but gassed out on the 5-yard line. Part of the problem was the moderate elevation at Boone, N.C. Part of it was overexertion – he was also starting at cornerback.

Going into his senior year, Adams’ coaches decided he was too valuable on defense and dialed him back on punts.

So you can imagine how rusty Adams felt two weeks ago when the 49ers suddenly put him back to catch punts in practice. He had to get used to the breezy conditions in Santa Clara, and to the height and velocity of Andy Lee’s booming punts. Adams wasn’t entirely smooth at first. But he immediately became a contender for the job when he took a punt and bolted for an 83-yard touchdown against the Raiders last Saturday.

A month ago, Adams was a peripheral defensive back. Now he’s getting noticed at two positions. The question is whether he has done enough to earn a roster spot when the 49ers cut down from 75 players to 53 on Saturday.

Most observers think he has, but Adams wants one more game to shine.

“I aim every day to surprise,” he said. “I have the underdog mentality, to be honest with you. I never get satisfied, I never get complacent. Because I feel like when you get complacent, your play starts to go down a little bit.”

So far, that hasn’t happened to Adams at the NFL level. Like a punt fresh off of Andy Lee’s foot, his play has been going straight up.

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