SANTA CLARA — Veteran safety Donte Whitner has insisted all along that rookie Eric Reid possesses the skills and mentality to be a hard-hitting defender.
The hope is he can also fill the void left by Dashon Goldson’s departure from the San Francisco 49ers in free agency.
Apparently, coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio agreed.
On Tuesday, they said Reid will be the NFC champion Niners’ starter at free safety for the Sept. 8 season opener against Green Bay at Candlestick Park.
And Reid, San Francisco’s first-round draft pick in April, soon heard about the announcement from reporters that he had earned a spot on one of the NFL’s top defenses.
“I feel like a professional football player now,” Reid said. “It’s obviously good news for me. I’m just going to keep working hard and try to keep the spot. I’ve been running with the 1s the last couple days. That’s always been the goal.”
When Fangio walked through the locker room a few minutes later, Reid said: “What’s up, Coach? I heard the news.”
In response, a smiling Fangio offered, “You knew.”
In 39 career college games with 26 starts over three seasons for the Tigers, the 6-foot-1, 213-pound Reid finished with 199 tackles, six interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 11 pass breakups and 4½ tackles for loss.
“Just everything we’ve talked about, he’s been good. He’s shown that he’s picked up the system fast and played well in games,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been a nice progression, nice process for him.”
San Francisco traded up with Dallas to draft the speedy safety with the 18th pick out of Louisiana State, believing all along he would make an immediate impact as a rookie.
“He doesn’t look confused at all now,” Whitner said. “He’s a guy, from high school on to college, he’s always been a good student and a student of the game. When you put those two in a guy that is willing to work, that’s why you win a starting free safety spot on arguably the best defense as a rookie. It’s hard to do, and he did it.”
Fangio offered a pace throughout the offseason and training camp that allowed Reid to grasp the concepts of the defense without becoming overwhelmed while learning more each day.
Whitner challenged Reid to lift weights with the veterans at 6:30 a.m. during offseason workouts. Whitner also has handed over duty of making calls for the secondary to Reid for series from time to time.
“That’s me trying to get him mentally ready,” Whitner said. “We’re not surprised. Ever since Day 1, he’s been picking up the system really well. He’s been tremendously physical back there, he’s tackling well, communicating well. So, he’s showing some veteran already in him.”
Fangio noted that Reid earned his spot, mentioning how linebacker Aldon Smith didn’t get his job as a pass rusher in nickel sets until after the final preseason game as a rookie two years ago.
“Just being the No. 1 draft pick doesn’t mean you come in and get a job,” Fangio said.
Also Tuesday, San Francisco traded linebacker Parys Haralson to the Saints a day after he left team headquarters with hugs and handshakes.
Lawrence Okoye, a former British discus Olympian who was trying to make the team as a defensive tackle, was waived/injured Tuesday. Also, defensive tackle Lamar Divens was waived/injured, while cornerback Chris Culliver was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Harbaugh said first-time footballer Okoye — on crutches with a bulky knee brace — could return this year.
Some tough decisions still remain. The 49ers must get their roster to the 53-player limit by Saturday — and they have two capable long snappers at the moment in veteran Brian Jennings, the team’s longest-tenured player, and rookie Kevin McDermott.
“Very, very even, both are NFL snappers,” Harbaugh said. “I feel very good about both those men. It will go right down to the wire.”
The 36-year-old Jennings is a two-time Pro Bowler and the only remaining player from the 49ers’ 2002 postseason run.
“I feel like I’m snapping well. I’m healthy. I feel like I can play unlimited seasons, so I don’t know why I wouldn’t play this season,” he said. “Obviously there’s another guy here. He’s doing fine. I don’t get to make the decision. If I could make the decision it would be pretty straight forward. I’m just getting ready to go. My mentality is I’m a 49er. I think the 49ers are going to have a great year this year. I’m planning to be a part of it.”
Notes: Fangio said Ian Williams will be the likely starting NT. … Fangio said he expects LB Patrick Willis, nursing a broken right hand, to play Week 1. “That’s my impression right now, yes,” Fangio said. “Now he might have to play with some contraption on his hand for a little bit.”… Fangio is planning on having LB Ahmad Brooks available for the opener without facing a suspension by the NFL for his altercation this summer with Divens. Brooks wasn’t arrested and the Santa Clara County district attorney said there was insufficient evidence to charge him. … RG Alex Boone hooted and hollered “Yeah!” in the locker room at word players got to go with shorts and shells — no pads! — for Tuesday’s practice. … DT Tank Carradine, DT Quinton Dial, RB Marcus Lattimore, T Luke Marquardt and CB Eric Wright placed on the reserve/non-football injury list. … The 49ers have signed linebacker Joe Holland to a one-year deal.