Ian Williams May Be Key to 49ers’ Defensive Line

After two injury-marred seasons, nose tackle could be poised to be at center of a deep group of defensive linemen

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Justin Smith will be gone from the 49ers’ defensive line in 2015, but Smith says the cupboard isn’t bare.

As he spoke with the media this week about his retirement and the state of the Niners, Smith noted there is plenty of talent remaining on the defensive line, specifically singling out Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams.

Dorsey, Williams, Tank Carradine, Darnell Dockett, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Quinton Dial, Kaleb Ramsey and this year’s No. 1 draft choice, Arik Armstead, will be part of what appears to be a wide-open competition for positions at the two defensive end spots in the 49ers’ 3-4 alignment, and at nose tackle.

Dorsey and Williams have held down the position at nose tackle the past two years, each stepping in for the other after injuries. This season, it’s possible that Williams will be the nose tackle, with Dorsey playing across the line at two or three spots. Dial also has played the position.

In speaking to 95.7 The Game this week (as transcribed by David Fucillo of SB Nation), Smith said: “Dorsey’s really come along, developed since he got here from Kansas City. I think a guy that’s not talked about much because he’s got injuries is Ian Williams. I think he’s one of he best nose guards in the league if his leg’s healthy.”

In 2013, Williams won the starting job at nose tackle after a competition with Dorsey, and appeared on the verge of becoming an impact player.

At that time, inside linebacker Patrick Willis raved about “his natural ability” and strength, the way he could hold his ground, tie up blockers and allow the linebackers to make plays.

But in the second game of the season against the Seahawks, Williams suffered a season-ending ankle injury and Dorsey filled in. In 2014, Williams took over for an injured Dorsey and started eight games before again going on injured reserve in November with a broken leg. In nine games, he was in on 22 tackles, had a sack and batted down a pass.

It’s possible that the 49ers defensive line in 2015 could be fluid, with new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini using players in different ways and in alternating positions depending on circumstances and the opposing personnel. That may be especially true now that defined defensive-end starters Smith and Ray McDonald are gone.

Mangini hinted at that this spring when he talked to Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group about his approach.

“Every player is different,” Mangini said. “You can’t just try to have a cookie-cutter approach. You’ve got to give them thngs that help them specific to their learning style. You have to find the best way to allow them to be successful and put them in position to succeed.”

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