SANTA CLARA (AP) — It took Marcell Harris longer than he hoped to make an impact in the San Francisco 49ers’ secondary.
The rookie is making up for lost time now.
Harris’ development at strong safety is one of the encouraging late-season storylines for the 49ers (4-10), who shoot for their third consecutive victory Sunday when they host the Chicago Bears.
A sixth-round draft pick out of Florida, Harris missed his entire senior season with the Gators because of a torn Achilles. Then a hamstring injury suffered in training camp this summer set him back further and he began the season on injured reserve.
When he finally took the field in Week 9 against Oakland, it marked Harris’ first game since the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, 2017, a span of 22 months.
“Football is football,” he said Thursday. “Once you get back at it, nothing’s changed as long as you play at a fast level and fast pace. The game’s going to eventually come to you.”
With injuries continuing to decimate San Francisco’s secondary, Harris has started the past three games at strong safety and shown improvement to the point that he might challenge for the starting spot next season.
Veteran Jaquiski Tartt, sidelined in recent games with a shoulder injury, is the incumbent strong safety but it’s conceivable that Tartt could shift to free safety next season depending on how San Francisco’s roster shakes out.
After a rough effort in his first start Dec. 2 at Seattle, when he missed three tackles, Harris has improved steadily. In last Sunday’s rematch with the Seahawks, he made six solo tackles, including one for a loss, in the 49ers’ 26-23 overtime win.
His play is justifying the 49ers’ faith in drafting him though he didn’t play a single snap as a college senior.
“It’s his violence, the speed at which he played,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “We felt he was very instinctive, a sure tackler. He had no hesitation in his game. All that stuff is showing up.”
Harris isn’t the only rookie who’s stepped up in the secondary.
After starting right cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was lost to a knee injury in the first quarter Sunday, third-round pick Tarvarius Moore filled in and held his own despite the Seahawks targeting him 10 times.
Moore gave up five receptions but steadied himself as the game wore on. With Witherspoon to miss San Francisco’s final two games, Moore draws his first start Sunday against the Bears.
He’s from Quitman, Mississippi, a town so tiny that “we didn’t get a McDonalds until 2014” as Moore put it. He attended Southern Mississippi, where he was a teammate of current 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens.
The 49ers converted Moore from safety upon drafting him, and Moore said veteran cornerback Richard Sherman has helped him tremendously with the transition. Like Harris, he’s trying to use these final games of 2018 to position himself for next season.
“It’s been kind of a learning curve all season transitioning from safety to corner,” Moore said. “I’ll have a little blunder sometimes, but other than that, I feel everything’s been going good right now and I feel I’m definitely heading in the right direction.”
NOTES: Tartt and linebacker Mark Nzeocha (groin) didn’t practice Thursday. ... Running back Matt Breida (ankle) and linebacker Malcolm Smith (Achilles) were limited.