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San Francisco 49ers Notebook: Niners reverse course, Malcolm Smith will not play in opener

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San Francisco 49ers linebacker Malcolm Smith warms up for practice in August of 2018. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

SANTA CLARA — A day after San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said that linebacker Malcolm Smith was good to for the opener against the Minnesota Vikings, head coach Mike Shanahan said that Smith, who worked out off to the side at the start of practice, is doubtful.

“He’s been limited all week and was today, also,” Shanahan said. “Doubtful is a small chance, so we’ll see on Sunday.”

Smith, who worked out on a side field with former Seattle Seahawks teammate Richard Sherman, has been out with a hamstring strain since the preseason opener on Aug. 9 against the Dallas Cowboys. A veteran of six NFL seasons, Smith was slated to start alongside rookie MIKE linebacker Fred Warner while Reuben Foster serves a two-game suspension.

“He’s just been limited each day,” Shanahan said. “At that stage, if he could take every single rep and go, then that’s when we would know he’s going. But, the fact that he can’t quite yet, he still has almost two more days to do it so that’s why we’re not going to rule him out, but he’s not there yet.”

Even without Smith beside him, the 49ers are confident in Warner making calls for the defense. Saleh said earlier this week that Warner was one of the smartest interviews he’d ever conducted at the NFL Combine with a linebacker.

“On tape, he seemed like a very smart player,” Shanahan said. “We met him at the combine, brought him in here and just the way he handled himself, it was pretty obvious that he was a very poised person.”

Before the combine, the 49ers personnel department did their research. Though he’d never played in a position where he could play physical, the staff dug into Senior Bowl tape to find examples of where he wouldn’t shy away from contact.

He’s shown that zest for contact since arriving in Santa Clara, and he’s shown an ability to pick up the nuances of the defense.

“Since he’s gotten here, nothing has been too big for him,” Shanahan said. “You get around a lot of guys, people can be very intelligent, but you can still get overwhelmed in the heat of battle and stuff. Fred’s been the same guy every day. Nothing is too big, nothing is too small and he’s been very steady and that’s what’s going to give him a chance to be successful.”

The likely other linebackers around Warner will be Brock Coyle instead of Smith at the WILL, and Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha on the outside.

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Now that it’s been several days since starting running back Jerick McKinnon’s season-ending ACL injury, the 49ers have had some time to adjust and move forward with Matt Breida and Alfred Morris.

Breida, in his first week back since a shoulder injury, was a full go, and came out fresh.

“I’m excited to see him on Sunday,” Shanahan said.

After serving as Ezekiel Elliot’s backup the last two seasons in Dallas, Morris signed with the 49ers after Breida was dinged up in the preseason opener against the Cowboys. He wasn’t up-to-speed by the time San Francisco faced the Houston Texans, but in the third preseason game, Morris ripped off 84 yards on 17 carries.

“Early in the week, I was still trying to make the playbook second-nature,” said Morris, 29. “I feel a lot more comfortable than I did early in the week, and I think I can play a lot faster.”

Morris — who had his two most productive years with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator in Washington — has seemed like an easy and natural fit for San Francisco given his knowledge of Shanahan’s offensive principles. When he arrived, though, Morris realized that Shanahan had evolved.

“It was similar, but different terminology,” Morris said. “There are some different protections and things like that. Overall, there was a lot of rollover, just had t0 re-learn the terms, and I’ve had two different offenses since then, so I had to do a brain dump and re-learn, and learn new stuff. The new stuff, I’m still ‘Ahh, not sure.'”

The alignments are similar, as are the tracks that he follows, but there is more emphasis on the running backs being a part of the passing game.

While with the Redskins under Shanahan, Morris rushed 611 times for 2,888 yards and 20 touchdowns, and caught a total of 20 passes for 155 yards in 32 games.

Over his two years as the offensive coordinator at the Atlanta Falcons, Shanahan’s top back — Devonta Freeman — caught 73 and 65 passes.

“It’s definitely a different offense,” Morris said. “They use the running backs here a lot differently than when I was with him in Washington. Us as players, we have to develop in the role, and they do, as coaches, too. I love Kyle’s offense. It’s even better. They use running backs a lot more, use them in the passing game. That’s something I’ve been wanting to be more involved in, anyway.”

Morris only caught 30 passes in college from his sophomore to his senior year, but piled up 300 yards and four touchdowns.

“A lot of times, I feel like I didn’t have the opportunity, but here, I have the opportunity, and they’re letting me do it, and letting me get comfortable,” Morris said.

Breida, who played receiver in high school, but in college at Georgia Southern, only caught 22 balls for 156 yards. He caught 21 balls last season for 180 yards as a rookie last season. McKinnon — also a Georgia Southern alum — caught just four balls for 38 yards.

“I think he’s come a long way,” Shanahan said of Breida’s pass catching. “I think he struggled with that when he first got here. He got a little bit better as the year went. But, I thought he had a drastic improvement going into OTAs and training camp. He’s further along in that area than he was when he came here.”

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Garry Gilliam (concussion) has cleared concussion protocol and will be the swing tackle on Sunday.

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The 49ers will start Mike Person at right guard over former first-rounder Joshua Garnett against the Vikings after a competition that spanned all of training camp and the preseason.

“My entire career, I’ve been competing for something, whether it be a roster spot, a spot to dress or to start,” said Person, who was drafted in the seventh round by the 49ers in 2011, but never played a game before being released in August of 2012.  Since he was drafted, person has only played 43 NFL games.

Person was told he would be starting last week.

“I can’t say that I did [expect it] coming in,” Person said. “I signed in May, and I came in with it in my head, just to go out every single day, and whatever happens, happens.

“My last go-around was tough. This is such a great locker room, a great organization to be a part of. It really is, even when I was here back in 2011 and 2012 training camp. Obviously there’s a few different personnel and staff, but it’s great to be back here, that’s for sure.”

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