Ricky Jean Francois was a wanted man inside the 49ers locker room on Friday.
After Justin Smith missed his third straight practice with an elbow injury, his streak of 185 straight starts, the third-longest active streak in the NFL, appears to be in jeopardy. Once Smith went out in the second half at New England last week, Jean Francois filled in for Smith and even contributed a crucial sack of Tom Brady in the late stages of the game.
So as Jean Francois fielded questions from reporters at his locker, Randy Moss and Mike Iupati couldn’t help but jump into the media scrum and ask some questions of their own.
“Do you think you’re pretty strong?” Moss asked Jean Francois.
“I squat about 700 (pounds), is that good enough?” Jean Francois responded.
Moss laughed and let Jean Francois go after that, but the point was made. Ricky is ready.
While Smith didn’t participate in Friday’s practice session, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said the veteran did some rehabbing, strengthening and conditioning throughout the day.
“He’ll be questionable for the game,” Harbaugh said.
If Smith is unable to go, they’ll need all of Jean Francois’ strength on the defensive line as they face Marshawn Lynch, who has reeled off back-to-back, 100-yard efforts against the 49ers dating back to last year. Jean Francois said he’s preparing as if he expects to start on Sunday.
The third-year defensive lineman has been a key backup to the starters, occasionally spelling Smith, Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga throughout the season.
“I’m happy to play any position,” Jean Francois said. “If (defensive coordinator) Vic (Fangio) sees me at a different position and sees we have an advantage somewhere with me, I’m happy to play nose tackle and end to show I have versatility.”
But when Jean Francois comes in for Smith, who is renowned for rarely coming off the field, it’s usually for a play or two while Smith catches his breath. So as he stayed in the defensive huddle against the Patriots, Jean Francois admitted he was expecting Smith to come substitute him out of the game.
“I was like that for a few minutes,” Jean Francois said. “I was, like, 1, 2, 3. Hold on, I’ve been in three plays, that’s too long.”
Once Jean Francois returned to the sidelines and found out Smith was in the 49ers locker room for evaluation, he changed his mindset and told himself he would probably have to finish out the game. Likewise, Jean Francois changed up his study habits this week with the possibility he could get his second start of the year and fourth of his career.
“This week’s preparation was a little bit different,” Jean Francois said. “More film and more details on their offense. Usually I’m on the sideline, so I can gather their offense and see what they like running back and forth. Now I’m going to be actually on the field, so I have to get that from looking at film before anything.”
Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley has practiced against both Smith and Jean Francois over the past four seasons. While no one can replicate Smith’s value to the team in the trenches, Staley said Jean Francois should be able to step in and contribute to the 49ers, who are tied with Seattle as the top-ranked scoring defense in NFL (15.6 points per game).
“He’s a very good player. He could start for a lot of football teams in the NFL,” Staley said of Jean Francois. “Fits the scheme really well, knows exactly what we’re doing. Obviously, Justin is Justin Smith and one of the best players in the NFL, but Ricky does a terrific job of going in there with a next-man-in kind of mentality. … If he’s in there, we expect him to do great things for us.”
Harbaugh on Friday also revealed that rookie linebacker Cam Johnson, the team’s seventh-round pick out of Virginia, could be a candidate to be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster as the 53rd man.
Tags: Cam Johnson, Randy Moss, Ricky Jean-Francois
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