SANTA CLARA — Linebacker Aldon Smith still has no indication from the NFL about a possible suspension for his off-field legal issues.
Everybody around the San Francisco 49ers is bracing for the news.
Smith said Tuesday he would hope to hear something soon, and a decision by the end of the week seems likely regarding the star pass rusher ahead of the regular season’s Week 1.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also has no idea how long the team might be without Smith, and coach Jim Harbaugh has said the same.
A multi-game suspension is conceivable, and Fangio is preparing the rest of the linebacking unit as if Smith might be gone for a prolonged period. These players have done it before: Smith missed five games last season to undergo treatment at an in-patient facility following his DUI arrest Sept. 20.
Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier were called upon to fill in during that stretch from late September until Smith rejoined the team Nov. 5 determined to better himself both on the field and off.
“Because you have a feeling that something may happen at this point in the season, everybody’s getting reps now,” Fangio said. All the guys that may play for him — Skuta, Lemonier, Lynch, Thomas — all those guys have been getting a lot of reps. They’re all ready to go. It’s more of an issue when it happens in the middle of the season, just thrown at you like it happened last year. Then there’s no time to adjust, you just go.”
Just before training camp began last month, the 24-year-old Smith was sentenced to serve three years of probation and to spend 11 days with a work crew after he pleaded no contest to drunken driving and weapons charges.
He has repeatedly said he has been sober since his DUI arrest last September.
In his latest run-in with the law, Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police said Smith was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. No charges were filed.
In November, he pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from a June 2012 party at his home. Investigators said several shots were fired, two partygoers were injured and Smith was stabbed. In the subsequent investigation, prosecutors say detectives found five unregistered, illegal weapons in Smith’s house.
Fangio said Michael Wilhoite is the front-runner to take injured All-Pro NaVorro Bowman’s inside linebacker spot, but nothing will be certain until after Thursday night’s preseason finale at Houston.
“He hasn’t proven that yet totally,” Fangio said. “We’re confident in Mike and we think he’ll do fine in there like he did last year in those two couple games he played.”
Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season as he recovers from surgery following a devastating left knee injury sustained in the NFC championship game loss to the rival Seahawks.
If the 49ers are without both Bowman and Smith, there are questions whether the defense will maintain its spot among the NFL’s elite.
“For a long time the linebacker crew here has been what I think is the best in the league,” Skuta said. “We don’t want that to change at all no matter who’s in there. With the depth that we have, there’s no reason why it should.”
For now, Smith’s coaches and teammates are rooting for him to stay on track for the long haul — even if it means not having him for a stretch this fall and mixing and matching again.
“We went through it last year, we lost Aldon for a few games,” middle linebacker and close friend Patrick Willis said. “Guys, Skuta and Corey, stepped up big time for us. It’s going to have to be like that again if we’ve got a situation. Regardless whether a player is down with injuries or he’s sick or a family cause, someone else has to step in and play just as well. Aldon has some big shoes to fill, but that’s why we’ve got to play team defense.”