The San Francisco 49ers are back at the team's facility for the offseason conditioning program.
Michael Wilhoite's story is perfect insight for 2014 NFL Draft hopefuls.
For any player intent on being a high selection, Wilhoite proves that draft-standing really doesn't mean everything. In Wilhoite's case, he wasn't drafted coming out of little-known Washburn University, Still, Wilhoite made two starts for the San Francisco 49ers in 2013.
Wilhoite enters this upcoming season as the leading candidate to start Week 1 for the 49ers with All-Pro NaVorro Bowman on the mend from a torn ACL.
Wilhoite, a third-year pro, began his professional football career with the United Football League's Omaha Nighthawks in 2011 and was added to San Francisco's practice squad in December of that year. Wilhoite was later added to the 53-man roster for 11 games of the 2012 season and played in all 16 games last year. Now, the 6-foot, 240-pound linebacker is competing to start in San Francisco's '14 opener on the road against the Dallas Cowboys.
To his credit, Wilhoite isn't ready to assume the starting job is a lock.
"I'm looking at it like there's still going to be competition," Wilhoite told 49ers.com after a recent workout at team headquarters. "My goal is to be the starter, but I know there's competition and they'll probably bring in more competition."
San Francisco has 11 draft picks in the upcoming draft and is still grooming Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick in '13 who played mostly at safety during his time at Florida State.
Wilhoite is aware of the 49ers depth at his position. It's also serving as motivation during the first two weeks of the voluntary offseason program.
"I think the biggest thing for me is to keep my mind on the grind and keep working hard," Wilhoite said. "I know there are guys nipping on my heels, so I have to keep going full-speed and make sure I can solidify myself first before I can feel like I'm going to be the starter."
Wilhoite made two starts for Joe Staley last season, totaling 24 tackles and a career-high 14 in a blowout Week 5 win over the Houston Texans. When Willis, San Francisco's seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker, returned to action the following week, Wilhoite resumed his focus on special teams. The third-year linebacker finished the season with 17 special team tackles.
Wilhoite cherished the experience of starting two games last season.
"It prepared me a lot," Wilhoite said. "The best way to get prepared for anything is experience, putting your body through certain situations."
Wilhoite credited Willis and Bowman for being stellar examples on how to play the position.
And while Wilhoite has only played in preseason and regular season games with Bowman as the other starting inside linebacker, Wilhoite said he expects there will be plenty of opportunities in offseason workouts to strengthen on-field chemistry with Willis.
"I think we'll get into that more in OTAs and minicamp," Wilhoite said. "Right now, we're focused on getting our bodies right and getting in condition, and making sure our bodies are strong so when we do get on the field we're 100 percent."
Wilhoite spoke highly of Willis' character, too.
"Pat's always the type to give advice and help any of us," Wilhoite said. "That's just the guy he is."
So while the up-and-coming linebacker pushes himself in competitive workouts alongside two of the NFL's premier defenders, he's usually too busy to think back on his journey to this point.
If Wilhoite can win the starting job, the tale gets that much better.