Michael Wilhoite has been perpetually underrated.
The 49ers linebacker played at little Washburn University, went undrafted out of college and had to play for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League and then finally was signed by San Francisco in 2011.
Even then, Wilhoite – who played multiple positions in college – was waived, then had to work his way back to the 49ers active roster as a member of the practice squad before becoming a standout on special teams.
Finally, that earned him some playing time at linebacker. Then, last season, he became a starter in the absence of All-Pro inside linbacker NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of 2014 with injury.
But even a strong season as Bowman’s replacement didn’t guarantee him a job with the Niners in 2015. With Bowman returning and the terrific play of rookie Chris Borland in 2014, Whilhoite was ticketed as a backup or trade bait this coming season.
After starting 16 games and being in on 87 tackles in 2014 – with two interceptions – Wilhoite again was in the role of underdog.
But with the retirements of Borland and Patrick Willis, Wilhoite now is penciled in as the starter at inside linebacker alongside Bowman.
And, it’s possible that the 49ers – who no doubt will miss both Borland and Willis – will be just fine with Wilhoite in the lineup.
In 2014, Wilhoite had some very strong games, against both the run and pass. He particularly showed an ability to cover receivers. In the season finale, a 20-17 victory over Arizona, Wilhoite had nine tackles and an interception, and Pro Football Focus graded him excellent in coverage, naming him to its All-Star Team of the Week. “It was in coverage where Wilhoite shined,” the PFF report noted, “allowing just 17 yards from four receptions and coming away with an interception.”
Now Bowman says he has a strong faith that he and Wilhoite will form a strong tandem on the inside of the defense, just as he and Willis did.
“He’s a hard worker,” Bowman said of Wilhoite, noting that the two are thinking along the same lines in meetings and conversations with the new coaching staff. “He understands that he had to crawl before he could walk. … He’s doing a great job. The crazy thing is some of the things that I don’t know or don’t say, Mike says it. So it’s really working out.”
In fact, new head coach Jim Tomsula, who is taking over for Jim Harbaugh this season, said this spring that he’s confident that the inside linebacking group that includes Bowman, Wilhoite, free-agent pickup Philip Wheeler and Nick Moody, will be a strong one.
“I feel good with the guys who are on the field right now,” said Tomsula.
And Wilhoite is confident that he and his 49ers teammates – despite the change in coaching staff and the roster turnover – will be better than many predict in 2015.
“The biggest thing for us is embrace the change, embrace the challenge and welcome it and buy into the new system and the new coaches and believe in everything they say and go out on the field and play 100 percent,” Wilhoite told ESPN in a recent interview.
“Everything that’s gone on so far has been great. I’ve really liked all the changes. … I’ll always miss Harbaugh. I had a great time with him and those coaches, but it’s apples and oranges, two totally different people and different staffs. I enjoyed the last one and I look forward to having a lot of fun with this one.”