SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Solomon Thomas shared a suite with Christian McCaffrey in college at Stanford, played heated games against him in Connect Four, and they helped lead the Cardinal to great success on the field as future top 10 picks in the NFL draft.
With both players set to make their pro debut Sunday when McCaffrey and Carolina visit Thomas and San Francisco, the 49ers rookie defensive lineman will get the opportunity to do something he always wanted at practice in college.
“We weren’t allowed to tackle Christian,” Thomas said. “We wanted to keep him healthy back at school. It will be fun to finally get to hit him. If I get that chance, I have to take advantage of it.”
McCaffrey and Thomas arrived at Stanford together in 2014 and quickly hit it off, in part because of their strong work ethic in the weight room and on the practice field. They helped the Cardinal win the Rose Bowl their second year in school, and then each became top 10 draft picks in April, Thomas going third overall, five spots ahead of McCaffrey.
They still keep up in texts and phone calls, although the communication has died down this week with a big game coming up.
“That’s one of my best friends in the whole world,” McCaffrey said. “He was my roommate back there. Unbelievable guy, unbelievable competitor. So it will be good to go against him. I’m excited.”
McCaffrey’s ties to the 49ers go far deeper than his close friendship with Thomas. McCaffrey’s father, Ed, was a teammate of Niners general manager John Lynch in Denver when San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan’s father, Mike, was head coach for the Broncos.
McCaffrey said he thought Kyle Shanahan even was his baby sitter on occasion, although Kyle said that was mostly his sister Krystal’s work as the families were quite close
“His dad was my hero growing up,” Kyle Shanahan said. “I was close with Ed and his wife Lisa. That’s really why I wore 87 in college. Ed was the man. I knew all his sons. They were a lot younger when I knew them, but they’ve all turned out to be pretty good athletes and real good people.”
Here are some other things to watch:
NEWTON’S SHOULDER: Cam Newton says his throwing shoulder “feels great” and he’s ready to go after playing just one series in the preseason. Newton had surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff surgery in March. Newton will start, but the Panthers are not expected to call as many designed runs as in the past; they are looking to limit the number of hits their franchise QB takes this season following years of pounding. However, all bets are off when the Panthers are near the goal line, as that is what makes Newton effective. No QB in NFL history has more touchdowns rushing than Newton.
HAPPY HOYER: Quarterback Brian Hoyer was drawn to San Francisco this offseason for the chance to reunite with his Shanahan, once his coordinator in Cleveland. Hoyer has seized the starting role and ended the preseason on a high note by throwing for 176 yards and two TDs in the third exhibition against Minnesota.
“I feel like we were getting better and better,” Hoyer said.
NEW COORDINATOR: The Panthers have a new defensive coordinator in Steve Wilks after Sean McDermott left to become Bills head coach. Wilks worked last season as the team’s defensive backs coach. Wilks’ defense should have a few new wrinkles from last year, but nothing significant as the Panthers will stick with a 4-3 base. Cornerback James Bradberry believes the Panthers will play more man-to-man defense and suggested “I just think we are going to be more aggressive.”
FANTASTIC FOSTER: While much of the focus will be on first-rounders Thomas and McCaffrey, San Francisco’s other pick in the first round will also play a big role. The Niners traded up to No. 31 to take Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster and have been extremely pleased with the move after an impressive preseason that earned him a starting role next to four-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman. Carolina has a formidable linebacker duo of its own with 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
PEPPERS RETURNS: Julius Peppers may have more sacks than any active player in the NFL with 143 1/2, but there’s a chance the 37-year-old won’t start against the 49ers. The Panthers are likely to go with Charles Johnson and Mario Addison, who received a big contract in the offseason, at defensive end and bring Peppers off the bench for spot duty. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it doesn’t really matter who starts and that they will all rotate regularly, along with Wes Horton.
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