SANTA CLARA — Trey Lance’s first home start is looking more inevitable for Sunday as Jimmy Garoppolo remains out of practice.
Garoppolo was not on the field for the start of Friday’s practice, though media access amounts to some five minutes for such walk-through sessions.
An official injury designation is expected by 2 p.m., at which time coach Kyle Shanahan will declare Garoppolo either as out, doubtful or, in a best-case scenario, questionable.
Lance took first-team reps in practices Monday, Wednesday and Thursday while Garoppolo dealt with an injury to his right thumb, having torn his ulnar collateral ligament and chipping a bone during the 49ers’ last game, a Dec. 23 loss at Tennessee.
Leading receiver Deebo Samuel, echoing teammates’ and coaches’ recent reviews, complimented how Lance has thrown the past month. Samuel was a bit more reserved, however, for good reason.
“He was the scout team quarterback and doing his job there. With the wideouts, we’re in the back going over plays for the next series,” Samuel said of Lance’s practices prior to this week. “We go off Kyle’s word. He’s doing a good job this week with the tempo of the offense. There’s still a learning curve but he’s doing a good job.”
Lance’s only previous start came Oct. 10, in a 17-10 loss at Arizona, where his opening series ended in an interception. He emerged with a sprained knee, a byproduct of his 16 carries, eight hits and two sacks.
At Levi’s Stadium, Lance has not taken a snap since the 39 he played upon replacing Garoppolo (calf) after halftime of an Oct. 3 loss to Seattle. Lance completed just 9-of-18 passes (157 yards, two touchdowns) and ran seven times (41 yards) in that 28-21 defeat.
His only other action at Levi’s Stadium was a three-snap cameo in a Sept. 26 loss to Green Bay, as well as two preseason games (11-of-27 passing).
Lance’s draft status (No. 3 overall) and lack of playing time as a rookie offers great intrigue in his playing ability, more so than how the playoff-contending 49ers will respond around him. Nate Sudfeld was activated from the practice squad to serve as Sunday’s backup.
The 49ers don’t seem to be in a panic, circle-the-wagons mode as other teams deploying backups as starters.
Consider this from Minnesota on Friday: Kirk Cousins went on COVID reserve, forcing the Vikings to start Sean Mannion, who has two NFL career starts (and is a Foothill High-Pleasanton product). “I think they’re going to rally behind Sean. They know how important this game is and they believe in Sean,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told reporters.
Garroppolo thumb was braced in black tape Thursday and he appeared upbeat after individual conditioning, a further sign that he is not shutting himself down for the season. Shanahan noted Wednesday that Garoppolo does not require surgery on his thumb, at least not now.
In Wednesday’s media session, he said he “definitely” had a chance to play Sunday, though resting seems a logical option ahead of a Jan. 9 regular-season finale at the NFC West-leading Los Angeles Rams, where the playoff stakes might be do-or-die.
Garoppolo played through the second-quarter injury last game, but it wasn’t easy, and he had two interceptions among a few errant passes. “If you can imagine not being able to use your thumb very much, just the feel of the ball that you normally feel, can’t really grip it the same way and throw it the same way,” Garoppolo said.
Asked how Garoppolo has looked in test sessions this week, offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel responded: “Jimmy is one of the best throwers on the planet. He’s very gifted in accuracy and ball placement, and he throws really catchable, tight footballs. That hasn’t changed.
“It’s more about how it responds and how it feels, so that you can have strength in that thumb through the course of an entire game,” McDaniel said. “So it’s looked great, it’s more about how he responds to it and how it feels the next day. That’s why it’s kind of a day-by-day basis with him. That’s been encouraging watching it and you’re kind of playing the waiting game saying, ‘Okay well, Friday, how’s he going to wake up and feel.’ “
Other health updates worth following:
— Will leading rusher Elijah Mitchell (knee) get cleared to play for the first time in four games, and will fellow running back Trey Sermon (ankle) be activated off injured reserve?
— Is Mitch Wishnowsky remaining on COVID reserve or will they bring newly signed Colby Wadman up from the practice squad this weekend?
— Linebacker Dre Greenlaw (groin) returned to practice in limited fashion this week. He aggravated a groin injury Nov. 28, when he played just 13 snaps against the Vikings, his first action since leaving the season opener after a pick-six.
— Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (knee) is expected to be ruled out, along with defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (calf) and safety Talanoa Hufanga (knee).