Sport: Why the 49ers have been unable to quit Daniel Brunskill, try as they might

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The player the San Francisco 49ers keep trying to shove into the shadows was in the spotlight Sunday night.

It’s rare for a right guard to get prime-time acclaim, but Daniel Brunskill earned it by pulling off a difficult block — what the 49ers call a “double bump” — on perhaps the biggest play of their 22-16 comeback win over the Chargers.

Brunskill, 28, had the most challenging assignment on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s 24-yard, fourth-quarter pass to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk that set up running back Christian McCaffrey’s go-ahead 2-yard touchdown run on the next snap.

The task: Block defensive end Kenneth Murray and then redirect inside to pick up blitzing safety Nasir Adderley.

On the telecast, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth explained how Brunskill made the play possible: “There was no way they could block everybody that the Chargers were bringing. And it was that heads-up play by the veteran Brunskill that really set it up.”

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After the game, on the 49ers’ offensive-line text chain, right tackle Mike McGlinchey included video of Brunskill’s block with a message: “Clinic tape.”

Said head coach Kyle Shanahan: “It was a huge play for us.”

The play was an example of why the 49ers haven’t been able to completely quit Brunskill, try as they might.

Last year, they used a second-round pick on guard Aaron Banks, an All-American from Notre Dame. Brunskill, the 2017 undrafted free agent who was playing in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football three years ago, didn’t let Banks take his starting spot.

This year, the 49ers used a fourth-round pick on guard Spencer Burford. Brunskill, who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain in the preseason opener that sidelined him for two months, has refused to fully relinquish his role.

Burford has started all nine games, but they have rotated since Brunskill returned from his injury in Week 4: Burford has played 249 snaps and Brunskill 174 during their six-game time-share.

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On Thursday, after the 49ers’ held their first practice at the Air Force Academy, Brunskill acknowledged that he recognized the obvious: The 49ers haven been trying to upgrade from him.

“Can it give you a chip?” Brunskill said. “Yeah. But it’s really about how you play. For them, it’s about what’s the best roster they can put together. That’s what they’re trying to do.

“And I’ve got to play my best ball and be as good of a player as I can. And I can always improve. So I don’t worry about that other stuff. I worry about what can I do to improve — and what I can do to help this team win.”

Brunskill, who has 40 career starts, also hasn’t worried that his mentoring of Burford could earn him a full-time seat on the bench. Brunskill has played surprisingly well against Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald in his career. Brunskill has shared his tips for dealing with Donald with Burford, who held his own against the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the 49ers’ two wins over Los Angeles this season. Burford shared Thursday how Brunskill continues teaching during games.

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“He’s put me in the best position to be successful,” Burford said. “He’s seen so many things that I haven’t. He’s gone against so many guys that I haven’t. He’s been here, in this system, and he just knows how things are supposed to work. So anything that I’m not sure about, he’s right there for me. I’m real grateful for him.”

The 49ers have tried to replace Brunskill partly because he’s far more workmanlike than dominant. Shanahan said that Brunskill lacks flash, but is reliable because of his smarts and studying, which allow him to “stay in front of his people.”

“He might not have a ton of highlights,” Shanahan said.

On Sunday, however, he had one at a critical moment. For his part, Brunskill downplayed the moment: He recalled how he was once caught off-balance and “obliterated” by blitzing All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner when trying to pull off a double bump against the Seahawks.

“Sometimes you get lucky,” Brunskill said, “and you have a good one.”

Eric Branch covers the 49ers for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Eric_Branch

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