SANTA CLARA — For the first time since 1993, there is no Bryant Young in the 49ers locker room.
When it comes to leadership, who could possibly fill those extra-large shoes?
After the first practice of training camp Friday, coach Mike Nolan identified a surprising candidate.
Patrick Willis, a mere 23, has emerged as an outspoken force.
"It's not because he's been asked or pushed into that role," Nolan said. "It has to be a natural thing. If people force it, it doesn't work."
Nolan said that the linebacker began taking steps at the end of last season when he asked a few times to address the team in the locker room before a game.
That's nervy stuff for a rookie, even for one who made the Pro Bowl.
For the wisdom that only a veteran can offer, teammates might seek out free-agent acquisition Justin Smith, an eight-year veteran.
In what ways will Smith be counted on to fill Young's void?
"I didn't ask him to take part in any of it, because I think that it comes naturally," Nolan said. "If Justin has leadership skills it will show in his play. It's pretty evident that he's a good player, and he'll take on the role that suits his personality."
As for Young himself, the retired four-time Pro Bowl selection will be around as a frequent visitor this season. No official role has been established.
Linebacker Manny Lawson, who suffered
— Daniel Brown, MediaNews staff