If Jeff Wilson is a one-hit wonder, well, it was one heck of a hit.
On Sunday, the 49ers’ anonymous running back ensured his fledgling career would have at least one moment of glory.
In the second quarter of a 43-16 loss at Seattle, Wilson sprinted through a huge hole and punctuated his 11-yard run by lowering his pads to deliver a shot that sent safety Tedric Thompson tumbling toward Tacoma.
The molar-loosening blow “kind of loosened everyone up,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. The 49ers’ bench erupted as Wilson hopped up and punched the air with a celebratory swing.
“I was like 3 feet away from (Thompson) when it happened, and I was like, ‘That’s not good for you, man,’” tight end George Kittle said. “But it was fun for us.”
Said quarterback Nick Mullens: “On that play, Jeff was a leader of our team.”
Wilson is an undrafted rookie from North Texas who spent the first 10 games on the practice squad. However, he has made an impression since he was promoted to the 53-man roster Nov. 23.
Against Seattle, he rushed for 61 yards on 15 carries and added a team-high eight receptions for 73 yards, although he did have a red-zone fumble. He rushed for 33 yards on seven carries in his debut, a 27-9 loss at Tampa Bay.
On Sunday, Wilson will make his first NFL start against the Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in place of Matt Breida, whose ankle injury against the Seahawks forced him from the game.
What can fans expect to see in Wilson’s first home game?
“Everything I’ve got,” he said, “I’m going to give it.”
Wilson isn’t huge. He’s listed at 6-foot and 194 pounds, although he said Wednesday he has bulked up to 205. He missed seven games because of injuries in his final three college seasons, and he briefly exited the loss at Seattle because of a foot issue.
Shanahan was asked whether Wilson’s physical style is sustainable, because he’s no longer facing Conference USA defenders.
“That’s what got him an opportunity in this league.” Shanahan said. “That’s what he does best. That’s why he’s going to make it. I hope he doesn’t lose that — for his and our sakes. He runs hard, and that’s what he does well. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy and he keeps getting better.”
Said Wilson: “You always have to pick and choose your battles. I’m not to go in there and just try to run down the middle of (everybody). It’s certain times you do it … but I’m more of an aggressive runner.”
Wilson is used to overcoming doubters. The only other colleges to recruit him were New Mexico, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State, and he went undrafted, in part, because of a relatively plodding 40-yard dash (4.52 seconds) at the combine.
Season-ending injuries to running backs Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert helped create an opportunity for Wilson. He has played the past two weeks in place of Alfred Morris, a two-time Pro Bowler who will turn 30 next week and likely doesn’t figure into the team’s long-term plans.
It remains to be seen whether Wilson will have a future role, or will serve merely as a Band-Aid for a 2-10 team hobbling to the end of its injury-plagued season.
In a best-case scenario, Wilson will develop into a running back who resembles his undrafted counterpart Sunday: Denver’s Phillip Lindsay ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing (937 yards) and is on pace to break the record for most yards (1,104) by an undrafted rookie, set by the Colts’ Dominic Rhodes in 2001.
Wilson isn’t close to a similar pace because he was slow to develop on the practice squad. Shanahan wanted to promote him after Mostert broke his arm in a win over the Raiders on Nov. 1, but decided to wait.
“He wasn’t quite ready, but I think his urgency changed a lot after that week,” Shanahan said. “He came back after that bye week (and) the urgency went way up. The results showed in practice and it carried over to the game.”
Indeed, Wilson has been running with urgency since his promotion.
Just ask a certain Seattle safety, who certainly would agree.