SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Veteran safety Donte Whitner has insisted all along that rookie Eric Reid possesses the skills and mentality to be a hard-hitting defender.
The hope is he can also fill the void left by Dashon Goldson’s departure from the San Francisco 49ers in free agency.
Apparently, coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio agreed.
On Tuesday, they said Reid will be the NFC champion Niners’ starter at free safety for the Sept. 8 season opener against Green Bay at Candlestick Park.
And Reid, San Francisco’s first-round draft pick in April, soon heard about the announcement from reporters that he had earned a spot on one of the NFL’s top defenses.
“I feel like a professional football player now,” Reid, a former LSU and Dutchtown High School star, said. “It’s obviously good news for me. I’m just going to keep working hard and try to keep the spot. I’ve been running with the 1s the last couple days. That’s always been the goal.”
When Fangio walked through the locker room a few minutes later, Reid said: “What’s up, Coach? I heard the news.”
In response, a smiling Fangio offered, “You knew.”
In 39 career college games with 26 starts over three seasons for the Tigers, the 6-foot-1, 213-pound Reid finished with 199 tackles, six interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 11 pass breakups and 4½ tackles for loss.
“Just everything we’ve talked about, he’s been good. He’s shown that he’s picked up the system fast and played well in games,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been a nice progression, nice process for him.”
San Francisco traded up with Dallas to draft the speedy safety with the 18th pick out of LSU, believing all along he would make an immediate impact as a rookie.
“He doesn’t look confused at all now,” Whitner said. “He’s a guy, from high school on to college, he’s always been a good student and a student of the game. When you put those two in a guy that is willing to work, that’s why you win a starting free safety spot on arguably the best defense as a rookie. It’s hard to do, and he did it.”
Fangio offered a pace throughout the offseason and training camp that allowed Reid to grasp the concepts of the defense without becoming overwhelmed while learning more each day.
Whitner challenged Reid to lift weights with the veterans at 6:30 a.m. during offseason workouts. Whitner also has handed over duty of making calls for the secondary to Reid for series from time to time.
“That’s me trying to get him mentally ready,” Whitner said. “We’re not surprised. Ever since Day 1, he’s been picking up the system really well. He’s been tremendously physical back there, he’s tackling well, communicating well. So, he’s showing some veteran already in him.”
Fangio noted that Reid earned his spot, mentioning how linebacker Aldon Smith didn’t get his job as a pass rusher in nickel sets until after the final preseason game as a rookie two years ago.
“Just being the No. 1 draft pick doesn’t mean you come in and get a job,” Fangio said.
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