SANTA CLARA (AP) — Michael Wilhoite knows he had important shoes to fill whenever he takes the field.
NaVorro Bowman, out with a knee injury, has been impressed with his replacement.
San Francisco opened the season without two All-Pro linebackers in Bowman and Aldon Smith. Wilhoite helped ease those losses with solid play.
“It’s just confidence in myself,” Wilhoite said Tuesday. “Any time you step on the field, your pride is on the line. I want to go out and play good football.”
Wilhoite was one of the reasons the 49ers held the Philadelphia Eagles to 22 yards rushing on 12 attempts. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick each had runs of at least 23 yards.
“I’m very impressed,” Bowman said. “He knows I’m working to get back and he understands his opportunities. This is his chance to show he can play in the NFL.”
Wilhoite knows all about taking advantage of his chances. He went virtually unnoticed at Division II Washburn University but caught on with the Omaha Knighthawks of the UFL, where he was moved from safety to linebacker.
He signed with San Francisco following his only season in the UFL, which featured former NFL coaches, and has steadily progressed.
“Mike is a good coverage linebacker,” Bowman said. “He’s starting to get a feel when he can take a chance or not. That comes with experience.”
For Wilhoite, the biggest adjustment is getting comfortable playing next to Patrick Willis. He says it’s an on-going process.
“We’ll progress every week,” Wilhoite said. “It’s gotten better from Week 1 to Week 2. I get confidence from knowing Patrick has confidence in me. It’s about working together, rep after rep, mistake after mistake, looking at each other and communicating.”
Plenty is going right for the 49ers, who lead the NFC in rushing defense and are second in the NFL in overall defense.
Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs and former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, represents another challenge.
The Chiefs rank second in the AFC and fourth overall in rushing offense.
“It’s only four games and it’s a long season,” Wilhoite said. “We’re playing good defense over the last three games and we’ll try to put on the same performance this week.”
In addition to his tackles, Wilhoite has defended a pair of passes and forced a fumble.
“NaVorro helps me a lot,” Wilhoite said. “He’s always in my ear and pointing out things to look for, things I may not see on the field. NaVorro loves this team and wants to help in any way he can.”
NOTES: Wilhoite was asked about the atmosphere in the 49ers’ locker room, which has been rumored to be in turmoil, and the team’s relationship with coach Jim Harbaugh. “This locker room respects him,” he said. “We like his toughness, the way he likes to grind it out, be physical. That’s been bred into us since he’s been here. We want to stop the run, play good football and play with discipline. We’re getting back on track with that.” ... Bowman focused on the basics. “We play. He coaches. We can’t control anything else.” ... After giving up 127 yards rushing to the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener, the 49ers have allowed a combined 152 yards in their past three games.