SANTA CLARA -- Finding a replacement for a player of injured inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman's caliber isn't easy. That is, unless that stand-in is perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis.
Willis said Tuesday that he has been asked by the 49ers coaching staff about the prospect of playing Bowman's so-called "Mike" position this season.
It's a position that Willis played extensively during his first four seasons, he said, when he played under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky from 2007-10.
"You just tend to be a little more involved or in the mix in terms of the team's offensive strength," Willis said. "That's probably the biggest difference."
Willis always tends to be around the action anyway. Still, filling in for Bowman until he returns from surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee carries a big responsibility.
"NaVorro has made his living playing that position and played at a high level," Willis said. "So, whoever it is has to play at that level or even better."
Willis said he doesn't view the potential switch as that big of a deal, given the way he approaches his craft.
"Since the day we put in the defense, I always take pride in knowing what all other 10 guys do, not just my position," Willis said.
Michael Wilhoite is the player projected to play alongside Willis, regardless which inside position that entails, until Bowman returns around midseason, as expected.
But Willis also might be forced to play one or more games without outside linebacker Aldon Smith in the lineup.
Smith is facing potential jail time or a suspension as a result of several off-field transgressions the past two years or so.
"It's not something we worry about," Willis said. "He's out here working. He's practicing every day. ... When that time comes, whatever is decided, that's what it will be.
"We'll have to get better as a football team. If he's not out there, then as with last year, some of the guys will have to step into his place and play big time."
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