The San Francisco 49ers welcomed back a pivotal member of their linebacker corps on Tuesday. Fifth-year inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite returned to the practice field for the first time since training camp began.
The veteran defender had been sidelined three-plus weeks due to a leg strain.
"It was good," Wilhoite told the media after his first practice. "Obviously, everything is moving a little faster than usual. I'm trying to get the calls out, figure out what the offense is doing and figuring out how to play each play, using my teammates to my advantage.
"But I thought it was good. I was just happy to be there. It was fun to run and to be out there with the team."
Wilhoite started all 16 games in 2014 and racked up 87 total tackles. The Washburn product will be once again a part of the competition to start at middle linebacker beside NaVorro Bowman. The timing of Wilhoite's return coincides with the strong preseason play of Nick Moody and Shane Skov and the recent hand injury to Desmond Bishop.
Jim Tomsula has been clear that he doesn't want to rush players back from injury. The coach's patience has been on display with veterans like Reggie Bush, Darnell Dockett and Bowman.
The good news continues in regards to Wilhoite, who said that he plans on playing on Saturday against the Denver Broncos in the team's third preseason contest.
"That's what I've been told," Wilhoite said. "This whole time I've just been going off of what they tell me and what they want me to do."
The linebacker is unsure of exactly how many snaps he'll see, but Wilhoite is excited for game action regardless. Over Wilhoite's tenure with the 49ers, he's had his role change from practice squad player to a leader with a starting spot.
That paradigm shift is not lost on the veteran defender.
"In year's past, if I was hurt, I probably wouldn't be here," Wilhoite admitted. "It's nice to know that they value me and look at me as a guy who can come in and play right away and make a difference on the field when I'm out there."
Now that he's back, Wilhoite is looking forward to integrating back into the team and working with some of San Francisco's rookies. He'll have a great chance to do just that this week with the team partaking in two joint practices with the Broncos.
"I think guys are motivated right now," Wilhoite said. "I think guys are working hard. There are no distractions, and everybody is focused on the task at hand. We're ready for a good trip to Denver, playing against a different offense and a Hall-of-Fame quarterback."
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning possesses a group of offensive weapons that are among the best in the NFL. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas will challenge the 49ers secondary while the backfield trio of C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball will keep the linebackers busy.
The nature of the sessions allows San Francisco to put its weeks of hard work at the SAP Performance Facility to use against another team. The 49ers have taken a competitive mindset into each practice thus far, and Wilhoite acknowledged that his teammates are eager to drill against players in another jersey.
"For these guys, I'm sure," Wilhoite said. "We can always play against each other everyday and we'll do it for 16 weeks. It's always fun to go play against someone else. I think it will be fun and a good experience for everyone."