SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers could throw Jeff Wilson Jr. back into the mix during Sunday’s clash with the Arizona Cardinals.
The veteran running back led the team in rushing in 2020 with 126 carries for 600 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Wilson also caught 13 of his 28 targets for 133 yards, including three receiving touchdowns, and was set for a significant role this season. Then in May, a freak injury of his meniscus occurred when the running back simply stood up from a chair in the locker room.
The 49ers have been relying on rookies Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon to hold down the run game along with second-year pro JaMycal Hasty. Mitchell has been very productive earning the FedEx Ground Player of the Week award for his 18-carry, 137-yard performance that included a touchdown in the 49ers' 33-22 win over the Chicago Bears last Sunday.
Still Wilson will bring an added dimension as a reliable route runner for Jimmy Garoppolo, and a third-down back when he makes his full return to the field. Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel believes Wilson brings more than his aggressive running abilities to the table when he plays.
"We call it a shoulder punch,” McDaniel said on Thursday. “When a defender is trying to tackle him, you can see extra energy and juice that the rest of the offense feels. He's a running back that when you give him a carry, not only is he getting yards, but he's also breathing life into to the offense and defense and the special teams.”
George Kittle, who will also likely make his return this weekend, has described Wilson as having a “dark side” when he plays. The running back can be so serious on gamedays that players and even coach Kyle Shanahan avoid approaching him unless it is completely necessary.
The intensity Wilson has during the game is something that is needed on the field when the Cardinals come to town, but McDaniel also doesn’t want to overload the ball carrier who hasn’t played football in several months.
As with every player that is making a return from injury, the coaching and medical staff will keep Wilson’s workload to a minimum to start. What is fully evident is the respect that everyone in the building has for the 25-year-old’s return.
“His style and his energy and passion for the game," McDaniel said. "He's a guy that was undrafted and wears that on his sleeve. It's really what's made him who he is, that he's not comfortable at all. He's always trying to work and get better.
“He's come a long way from that 195-pound skinny kid in North Texas that we worked out back in, whenever that was, 2018. And that's a testament to him specifically and who he is as a person and a man.”