SANTA CLARA – Laken Tomlinson did not have to watch the film to give his opinion of how 49ers rookie left tackle Justin Skule fared in his first NFL start.
“He’s the freakin’ man,” said Tomlinson, who lined up next to Skule at left guard for all 79 offensive snaps in the 49ers’ 24-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
“I am really impressed.”
Skule, a sixth-round draft pick from Vanderbilt, was forced into action in the second half last week against the Cincinnati Bengals when six-time Pro Bowl lineman Joe Staley went down with a fractured left fibula. Skule remained in the starting lineup for the team’s home opener.
Two hours before the game, Skule went to the sideline to greet his parents, two of his younger siblings and his girlfriend. He said he tried to keep things as normal as possible after starting 40 games in the SEC during his college career.
“Everyone has nerves,” Skule said. “It doesn’t matter what level, you always have nerves going into a game. But there was no anxiety or anything. After that first play, it’s just football. Everything settles down and you just play football.”
The 49ers had a plan to help Skule if it looked as if he would have a difficult time against Steelers outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. But, as it turned out, Skule did not require a lot of extra attention.
“When bullets are flying out there sometimes, that stuff goes out the window and he’s got to fend for himself,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “And I think he did a good job.”
One of the options for the 49ers was to go with a lot of two tight-end sets with blocker Levine Toilolo lined up on the left side of the formation. Toilolo played 10 snaps in the game. Toilolo said Skule benefitted greatly from the guidance of Staley and right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
“He did a good job,” Toilolo said of Skule. “He prepared well all week. He has a great group around him with Joe and Mike, guys like that. I think that whole room did a great job of getting him ready and building up his confidence and letting him know that he was ready.”
Skule appreciated Staley’s willingness to help, including an invitation to visit the Staleys at their home early in the week.
“He’s been phenomenal, giving me pointers, watching film with me, doing all sorts of things,” Skule said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better person to help me.”
Skule – like everyone else on offense – has plenty of room for improvement. He was flagged for three fourth-quarter penalties. He was twice called for holding and was penalized for an illegal blindside block on Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. The penalty was met by vocal protest from Staley on the 49ers’ sideline.
“Obviously, I’d never try to hurt anyone,” Skule said. “I was trying to lead with my shoulder. I didn’t want him to hit Jimmy (Garoppolo). My job is to protect the quarterback, so that’s what I was trying to do. I just wanted to make sure he didn’t get to the quarterback. I’ll look at it and learn from it, for sure.”
Despite Skule’s penalties, Tomlinson was encouraged that the 49ers will continue to be fine for as long as Staley is sidelined. Staley is expected to miss six to eight weeks with his injury.
“I thought he did a great job,” Tomlinson said of Skule. “He came out there confident with the calls and everything. Chemistry like that takes a while for you to build. For him to step in and step up, man, it shows how much he really cares. We appreciate how hard he works.”