Malcolm Smith has been snakebit since he arrived in San Francisco. The 49ers veteran linebacker was one of the first free-agent additions of the John Lynch/Kyle Shanahan era. They envisioned Smith as their starting WILL linebacker in 2017.
And yet, Smith remains a relatively unknown as he enters his second year with the club. Smith tore a pectoral muscle last summer during the 49ers open practice. Before camp this year, he suffered a lower leg injury that put him on the Non-football Injury List. Then in the preseason opener, Smith left the game during the defense's opening drive with a hamstring injury.
"This has probably been the most challenging time that I've ever had playing football, just being away and trying to get back," Smith said. "Then you have all these hurdles trying to get back. It's been challenging, but in the long run it will be good."
One of the hardest aspects of being injured is fighting off the mental demons that creep in. It's human nature to let your mind worry about things that are often completely out of your control.
"You feel guilty," Smith said candidly. "You feel like you let people down. You feel like what more could you have done? All of those things go through your head, but at the end of the day those things aren't helpful, and you've got to focus on whatever's going to help you move forward."
Smith made his return to game action last Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts. He started at WILL next to rookie Fred Warner – the potential combination that the 49ers will roll with to open the year while Reuben Foster serves his two-game suspension. Smith played two series that spanned 10 total snaps, both of which ended in a stop for the defense.
"It felt great to be out there," Smith said. "Honestly, it's been on my mind a lot – just trying to get through (the injuries). It was good to get some plays and get some action. Hopefully I'll be able to build on it."
The most promising aspect of Smith's night was that he came out of the game without suffering a setback. He's well aware of what's at stake. With Foster out to start the season, Smith has a golden opportunity to earn a starting job. Two games of good tape could keep Smith in the lineup even after Foster returns as well.
"I'm trying to be as ready as possible physically," Smith said. "Mentally, I don't think there's anything I haven't seen as far as what we're doing. It's a great opportunity for whoever (wins the job). It's also a great opportunity for our group to build and be stronger. As soon as Reuben comes back, we expect him to do what he's always done. It takes a strong group if you want to go far in this league."