AP Sports Writer
METAIRIE, La. (AP) -- Saints rookie right tackle Bryce Harris is so grateful to have a chance to play in the NFL he isn't about to complain about the timing of his first career start, which is likely to come this Sunday against a San Francisco defense featuring some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.
"I'm just glad to have the opportunity to start," Harris said following practice Thursday. "I'm lucky for all this to happen to me. I've just got to take advantage of my opportunities."
Harris entered the NFL with Atlanta as an undrafted rookie out of Fresno State and made the Falcons' practice squad before being signed to New Orleans' active roster in early September. Harris did not play a down until being pressed into service last week at Oakland, after Charles Brown went down with a right knee injury. Brown had been playing in place of injured starter Zach Strief, who has been sidelined since Nov. 5, when he injured his left groin during a victory over Philadelphia.
"It was nerve racking, obviously. Not warmed at all," Harris recalled of his unplanned debut in Oakland. "My head was just racing."
The Saints went on to win 38-17, and although Harris was beaten a few times after he first went in, he seemed to settle into his role as the game wore on.
"Bryce did a good job last week," said Strief, who returned to practice on a limited basis this week. "Obviously, he gets tossed into the fire in the middle of a two-minute drill. That's less than ideal. I feel his pain. I've been in this situation before. It's not easy physically. It's not easy mentally, especially as your first reps in a live game."
Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Thursday that Strief looked good in practice and appears to be ahead of schedule, but he stopped short of saying whether the veteran starter would be ready to play by Sunday.
For now, all signs point to Harris making his first start against the 49ers, whose lineup features defensive stars such as linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.
The 49ers allow an NFL-low 13.4 points per game. They have allowed 277.2 yards per game, which ranks second in the league. Aldon Smith has 15 sacks this season. Defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks are also top play-makers on one of the league's best defenses.
Harris said he doubts the 49ers would change to their already successful defensive scheme just to challenge him, but he expects San Francisco to try to test him early, one way or another.
"I'm sure the first play Brooks is going to come off full blast and try to knock me out and just try to put that intimidation into me," Harris said. "I'm expecting it and I'm just going to handle it accordingly."
Harris said that if he does start, he will be glad he had last week's experience, along with a full week of practice with the first team. Coaches have also noted that there are ways to help inexperience tackles by having running backs and tight ends deliver more "chip" blocks.
"Last week let me get all the nerves out so I don't feel nervous," Harris said. "This week I got all the reps with the first-team. So I got what (the 49ers are) going to do defensively."
Harris noted that Strief has been tutoring him and that playing alongside right guard Jahri Evans, and All-Pro last season, helps as well.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he thought Harris looked "very calm and comfortable" for a player seeing his first NFL action. Strief echoed those comments.
"He's a really good athlete, strong player," Strief said. "He has picked our stuff up extremely well. We have a lot of nuances in our technique and he's really on top of that stuff. ... You see so much improvement week to week and he's a good player. He's a guy I think all of us have plenty of faith in.
Notes: CBs Corey White (right knee) and Elbert Mack (concussion) missed their second day of practice this week, meaning the Saints might have only three healthy cornerbacks Sunday: starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson, and cornerback Johnny Patrick. Vitt said Malcolm Jenkins, who was drafted as a cornerback before moving to safety in 2010, could step in as a cornerback if necessary. ... Also not practicing were defensive end Junior Galette (left ankle) and linebacker Ramon Humber (illness). RB Darren Sproles (left hand), who has missed the last three games, practiced fully.
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