Wilson's secret speed, attitude help 49ers RB excel as starter

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Running back Jeff Wilson Jr.’s best attributes as a player might be his physicality, toughness and decisiveness.

Those qualities are wrapped around a relentlessly positive demeanor.

But there's something else he has shown this season that might not immediately come to mind when thinking about Wilson.

This season, he also has provided surprising flashes of top-level speed after entering the 49ers’ starting lineup due to Elijah Mitchell’s knee injury.

In the past two games, Wilson was clocked at exactly 20.82 mph on runs of 41 yards against the Carolina Panthers and 32 yards against the Los Angeles Rams, according to Next Gen Stats.

He owns two of the top eight speeds among NFL running backs through five weeks of the regular season.

“I’m not naive to the situation,” Wilson said. “Obviously, if we ran a 100-yard race, I wouldn’t bet on myself to come in first. At the same token, it was good because I’m not the slowest, either.”

Wilson had made a noticeable improvement from last season when he returned from offseason surgery to repair meniscus cartilage damage in his knee. In the nine games he played in 2021, Wilson never looked healthy and clearly lacked speed.

“Even though when I was playing, it still didn’t feel like I was quite where I needed to be,” Wilson said. “You could see it when you watched film. This year, it’s a totally different ballgame. It’s like night and day. I did a lot of work in the offseason and it paid off.”

Wilson, the 49ers’ leading rusher in 2020 with 600 yards, currently tops the 49ers with 375 yards and two touchdowns on 74 rushing attempts. He is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

His attitude and playing style have won him a lot of admirers among his teammates and coaches.

“He doesn't mess around,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He knows himself, he puts his foot down and goes forward.

“He plays so fast, hits it [the hole] so hard and he usually always gets a little bit more than you block it for.”

Wilson, who came to the 49ers in 2018 as an undrafted rookie from North Texas, has been one of the most popular players on the team for as long as he has been around.

Each season, the 49ers bring in new players, including back-to-back third-round draft picks, to move him down the depth chart.

And each season, Wilson works his way back up the ladder to take on a significant role in the 49ers' offense.

It is a fact of football that Wilson said he learned from an early age. He said it took him a couple of years out of high school to earn his spot in college. And, even then, he regularly hosted running back recruits -- players who potentially could come to the team and aim to take his job.

The same has held true in the NFL. Last season was particularly difficult because he was set to enter free agency. After struggling physically, Wilson had few other options in the offseason but to return to the 49ers on a one-year, $2 million contract.

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Still, his attitude and upbeat nature never wavered.

“I feel like the football life already sets you up and gets you ready for all that,” Wilson said. “The only thing you really got to do is not worry about it and work.”

And that is music to the ears of his coaches and anyone with whom he comes in contact.

“He's a pretty infectious guy,” Shanahan said. “I think we all feel that way. Our wives who've met him feel that way, like he's just a very positive, upbeat guy that is fun to be around.

“Everyone loves him as a person. And then when you watch the way he plays combined with his character, he's so inspiring to watch.” 

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