Last year, Patrick Willis frequently commented on how unusual it was to play next to someone other than NaVorro Bowman.
Now just a few months later, the roles have been reversed.
Willis, of course, retired in early March, leaving Bowman without his close friend and long-time inside linebacker partner as he takes the final steps in his ACL recovery.
Bowman's new counterpart is Michael Wilhoite, who started all 16 games a year ago for the three-time All-Pro. Because Willis' departure has coincided with Jim Tomsula's staff installing a new system, Bowman is approaching this offseason the same as he did when the previous coaching staff arrived.
Still rehabbing an ACL injury, the All-Pro linebacker moves through a drill that involves cutting on the impacted knee.
"It's strange," Bowman said of Willis' absence. "But when me and Pat first got introduced to (former defensive coordinator) Vic (Fangio) and his scheme, everything was new. That's how me and Mike are treating this thing. Just learning everything as much as possible and learning together."
Wilhoite served as a consistent presence in the middle of the 49ers defense. Playing alongside Willis and the also now-retired Chris Borland, Wilhoite accounted for 87 tackles, six pass breakups, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
"He's a hard worker," Bowman said of Wilhoite. "He understands that he had to crawl before he could walk. … He's doing a great job. The crazy thing is some of the things that I don't know or don't say, Mike says it. So it's really working out."
As for Bowman and Tomsula's relationship, the two leading men have a strong understanding of one another. The linebacker and coach are working together to ensure a cohesive locker room.
"Like I've always said, he's a player's coach," Bowman said. "He's willing to see what the players like and try to work around it. He's not giving us everything we want, but he's trying to meet us in the middle, and I think that's the best thing for it."