Over this past offseason, the 49ers pursued and signed former Raiders standout cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in an effort to upgrade their pass coverage capabilities.
But five games into the 2013 season, it appears the player most capable of doing just that has been on the San Francisco roster all along.
Tramaine Brock, signed by the 49ers in 2010 as an undrafted free agent out of little NAIA school Belhaven University, took over the No. 3 cornerback job from the injured Asomugha in Game 4 vs. the Rams, then had two interceptions – including one he returned for a touchdown – in Sunday night’s victory over the Houston Texans.
Now, as the 49ers prepare to play the Arizona Cardinals Sunday at Candlestick Park, Brock again will be the team’s third cornerback in passing situations.
This week, in fact, Brock was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his play against the Texans, and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said Brock will continue to get playing time.
“Really pleased with the way Tramaine’s ascending,” Harbaugh told the media this week. “When you play like that, you’re going to continue to play. So, I think there’s going to be more opportunity for him.”
Brock certainly has taken a roundabout route to becoming a significant contributor to the 49ers’ defense.
He spent his first two years of college at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, then transferred to the University of Minnesota. But after one season as a starter for the Gophers, he was suspended for academic reasons and moved on to Belhaven in Jackson, Miss., in his home state.
He played sparingly for the 49ers in 2010 and 2011, and then in 2012 played a big role on San Francisco’s special teams.
This summer, Brock was playing well until an injury allowed Asomugha to earn the nickel corner job (last year’s No. 3, Chris Culliver, is out for the season). Now an injury to Asomugha opened the door to Brock, and he’s taken the ball and run with it – literally. His touchdown vs. the Texans was the first of his pro career.
His pick-six TD, which put the 49ers up 7-0 and set the tone for the 34-3 victory, came on a perfectly timed move in front of Texans wideout Keshawn Martin. Brock zipped in front of Martin to snag the pass from Matt Schaub and sprinted 18 yards for the TD.
“I just did my job and the ball came to me,” said Brock after the game.
Brock was one of several players on the 49ers defense Sunday night who stepped up from backup roles to make contributions, including defensive lineman Tony Jerrod-Eddie and linebackers Michael Wilhoite and Corey Lemonier.
“That just shows we have guys two and three deep at so many positions who can come in and help the team,” Wilhoite told Daniel Brown of the Bay Area News Group. “Guys get hurt and we have answers behind them.”
Asomugha, who hyperextended his right knee making a tackle late in the loss to Indianapolis on Sept. 22, has spoken highly of Brock’s talents.
“He’s played well ever since I’ve been here. He’s quick,” Asomugha told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group before the Texans game.
Safety Eric Reid, too, says Brock has what it takes to be a playmaker. Though Brock is only 5-foot-10, he’s quick and daring.
“(Brock) is an aggressive corner and he’s not going to back down by any means,” Reid said. “We’re going to depend on him to do his job.”
And for now, it appears that No. 3 cornerback role is his job to lose.