Just a couple of weeks ago, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called the Michael Wilhoite-Chris Borland duel to start at inside linebacker “very even.”
Now, with just Thursday night’s fourth exhibition game remaining before the regular-season opener at Dallas on Sept. 7, everything points to Wilhoite as the winner.
The good part for the 49ers, however, is that Borland looks like a co-winner.
Both have played exceptionally well, and both are coming off strong performances against the Chargers in a victory over San Diego at Levi’s Stadium Sunday.
Wilhoite, who started alongside Patrick Willis at inside linebacker, had four tackles and an assist vs. San Diego, while Borland had five tackles, an assist and a sack.
But Wilhoite was in on one of the key stops of the game, combining with Willis to stop Chargers running back Ryan Mathews on fourth-and-1 deep in Niners territory in a still-scoreless game in the first quarter.
Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group noted that the stop by Wilhoite was yet another indication that he’s working well with the first-team unit and especially well with Willis.
“Our chemistry’s good,” Wilhoite told Inman of the relationship with Willis. “We’re feeding off each other and communicating well. The No. 1 thing is chemistry.”
Added Willis: “It’s easy to communicate with Mike. … So when things get hectic or things get a little crazy, we can talk to one another and we can play whichever spot that calls for in the moment.”
Wilhoite said he hasn’t yet been notified he’s going to start in Game 1 vs. the Cowboys, and he also knows he’s just holding down the spot until NaVorro Bowman returns from knee rehab, which is expected about midseason. Wilhoite, in fact, says Bowman has been working with him to help him get better. The short-yardage play he made against the Chargers, in fact, was helped by Bowman’s input.
“It felt good because honestly, in my head, we had played that play a couple of times in practice and (Bowman) kept telling me to play a little different and shoot the gap,” Wilhoite told 49ers.com. “I did and so it felt good. And not only for me to make it, but to make it with Pat, it was even better because I’ve seen him and Bow make so many plays together in the past two years. It just felt good to share that excitement and share that play whether it had been Pat or Bow, but especially with Pat.”
Meanwhile, Borland, the rookie from Wisconsin, continues to shine and give the 49ers great depth at linebacker. Borland and fellow rookie Aaron Lynch may not earn starting jobs this season, but could make big impacts on the roster in years to come.