49ers’ Mays already making mark as a starter

Taylor Mays’ transition into the starting lineup didn’t exactly

go as planned with the San Francisco 49ers, but now that he’s there

the rookie is preparing for a long stay in the team’s

secondary.

Mays, who didn’t play a defensive snap in San Francisco’s first

three games, was thrown into the lineup last week after veteran

starter Michael Lewis abruptly left the team two days before its

game at Atlanta. Mays leapfrogged veteran Reggie Smith on the depth

chart to get the starting call in place of Lewis at strong

safety.

He didn’t disappoint.

Mays held up well in coverage and led the 49ers with 11 tackles,

the most in a game by a San Francisco player this season. He also

made his mark on special teams, becoming the first 49ers player in

23 years to recover a blocked punt for a touchdown. Mays tiptoed

the line in the back of the end zone to make that play, giving San

Francisco an early 14-0 lead in a game it eventually lost

16-14.

”With Taylor, he’s matured the last couple of weeks, so we

wanted to test the market and see how he’d do,” defensive

coordinator Greg Manusky said Thursday. ”He did quite well. I was

proud and pleased with his performance.”

The 49ers weren’t expecting to ask for that performance so soon.

San Francisco wanted to give its second-round draft pick more time

to adjust to coverage responsibilities at the NFL level, since Mays

often lined up 20 yards off the ball during his college career at

USC.

But after an 0-3 start, the 49ers decided it was time to

accelerate Mays’ learning curve.

Coaches planned to gradually work Mays onto the field, asking

Lewis last week to help mentor Mays. That did not sit well with

Lewis, who promptly asked for his release and did not make the trip

to Atlanta. The 49ers released Lewis – a former Pro Bowler who had

started 50 of the team’s previous 51 games at strong safety – on

Monday.

”I didn’t think it would happen like how it happened, but

you’ve got to roll with it and I just went with it,” Mays said.

”It was a trip the way it kind of went down, but at the same time

I was still preparing during the week like I was going to play, so

it kind of made my transition a little easier.”

It’s a new mentality for Mays this week as the winless 49ers

prepare for Sunday night’s game against the visiting Philadelphia

Eagles.

The 49ers have given Mays the permanent job next to veteran free

safety Dashon Goldson. San Francisco has been looking to upgrade at

safety with fresh talent for several years, and that search may now

be over.

”It’s very motivating, and it’s a little bit different mindset

for me now,” Mays said. ”I just need to be consistent and try to

get better. I did some things right last week, but I feel I can do

a lot more things better. I’m eager to show how much I’ve improved

since last week.”

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mays possesses a unique combination of

size and speed. Mays has been timed at 4.3 seconds over 40 yards,

and his quickness and athleticism are dimensions that have been

lacking in the San Francisco secondary.

Mays lasted into the second round of the NFL draft this year

because of questions surrounding his raw skills and coverage

ability. He answered several of those concerns when given the

opportunity against the Falcons.

Now the 49ers are eager to see what kind of impact he can make

the rest of the season.

”Taylor had no mental errors in the game,” 49ers coach Mike

Singletary said. ”When you’re as big a safety as he is, it was

really important for us to see if he could really get into the box

and cover, do some of the things that the smaller, quicker-twitch

safeties can do. And he can indeed do that.

”He knew exactly where he needed to be, played his position

well and brought value to our team. He’s continued to blossom since

he’s been here, and I think he’s going to be a tremendous asset

going forward.”