WR Brandon Aiyuk finds a way to stand out on 49ers offense

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Friday, February 9, 2024

WHEN BRANDON AIYUK runs -- arms pumping, hair flying -- everything in his 6-foot, 200-pound body says get out of the way. With 6:30 left in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the Lions leading Aiyuk's 49ers 24-10, he shot off the line of scrimmage from the right side of the Niners' 45. He hit full speed within three strides and just kept going. No moves, no pretense.

Behind him, Brock Purdy took the shotgun snap, jiggled his feet a bit and heaved it in Aiyuk's direction. Lions cornerback Kindle Vildor was down there, too, all by himself, confronting this human blast furnace heading his way. The pass was slightly overthrown, a foot or two past Aiyuk's outstretched right hand but perfect for Vildor, who watched it fly through his hands and smack off his face mask.

By now, everyone knows what happened next: Aiyuk, head up, tracked the ball as it bounced off Vildor's head; his body horizontal and roughly three feet off the ground, he caught it as if this was the plan all along. "Felt like slow motion," Aiyuk says in the week leading up to the 49ers' meeting the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII. "When I close my eyes, I still have the picture in my head."

It's rare that a game provides such an easily identifiable turning point; this one might as well have come with a siren. But what is less known is what happened after the catch, when Aiyuk returned triumphantly to the offensive huddle.

"Funny you should ask about that," Aiyuk said.

It turns out there wasn't much triumph; he spent so much time attempting to get coach Kyle Shanahan to challenge the play -- thinking he wasn't touched by Vildor and should have had a touchdown -- that the only reaction he got from his teammates was to get his complaining butt in the huddle or else cost them 5 yards.

"Time to go, BA," they told him. "Time to go."

Aiyuk, who says he knew he was going to have a lucky day when a ladybug landed on his shoe during pregame stretching, laughs and says he shrugged and stuck his head in the huddle.

"I figured we got to get back to it," he says. "That's our way: On to the next."

THE URGE TO introduce the world to a fourth-year, second-team All-Pro wide receiver as he heads to the Super Bowl seems gratuitous. But with Aiyuk, whose 75 regular-season catches for 1,432 yards might make him the league's best player at getting the most out of limited opportunities, it also seems necessary. The roll call of the 49ers' offensive stars usually reaches four -- Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle -- before it gets to Aiyuk, unless tackle Trent Williams is tossed in there, in which case Aiyuk is sixth. There's only so much praise to go around.

Perhaps that's why his first reaction to the off-the-face-mask catch was excitement, not for the act itself but for the opportunity. "I'm like, 'OK, finally, a chance to make a play,'" says Aiyuk, 25. Shanahan's offense, though remarkably varied, tends to bend toward what's working. Since McCaffrey is almost always working, Aiyukfind themselves in the position of waiting for a turn that may never come.While Aiyuk's 105 targets led the team during the regular season, it ranked just 36th among all NFL pass-catchers.

"It's a team full of stars," says cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, who matches up against Aiyuk in practice nearly every day. "It can be hard, so when you get your chance ... how should I word this? Let's say you need to go the extra mile to even get seen."

Aiyuk's odometer turned over long before he got to the NFL. He was affectionately termed a "zero star" recruit -- more accurately, non-recruit -- from Patrick McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada, where he began as a 5-foot-3 freshman ("But I was athletic," he says, "so I could get away with it") and sat out as a junior because of academic issues (Of school, he says, "I wasn't a fan.") It wasn't like anyone really noticed, though, because one of his coaches at the time, current McQueen head coach Matt Marner, can't remember whether Aiyuk was even called up to the varsity for the playoffs his sophomore year. To the best of his recollection, he wasn't.

"The kid you don't see as a junior, you pretty much write off as a senior," says Marner, who began coaching Aiyuk in middle school basketball. "You're probably not going to see that kid again."

How easy would it have been for him to drift into another lane and forget about sports -- and school -- entirely? "I'm not sure what kept me going," Aiyuk says. "That was a long time ago. But the love that I have for the game right now, I'm sure it was similar at that time. So I don't think it was hard, really. I think it was probably the plan the whole time."

Everything about his path is just a bit more circuitous than most. He got his classwork in order and grew to about 6-foot. He had an excellent season playing defensive back and returning kicks while remaining, in Marner's words, "on absolutely nobody's radar."

He ended up at Sierra Community College, a two-year school a couple of hours down Interstate 80 in Rocklin, California. He went there because he was not an academic qualifier, for one, and because Sierra coach Ben Noonan -- "the great Coach Noonan," Aiyuk says -- recruited him to play wide receiver in his RPO offense. It was mostly a leap of faith; Noonan saw the tools -- the catch radius, the speed, the aggression -- but what he didn't see was much evidence that Aiyuk could play receiver.

"The film on him as a receiver in high school was almost nonexistent," Noonan says.

LOOK OUT ONTO the field on Sunday and pick a player at random. The odds are surprisingly good that he can cite a fortuitous turn of events -- like a ladybug landing on a shoe -- that changed the course of his life and career. Sierra was where Aiyuk began to figure out football, and himself. He lived a few blocks from campus, never missed a practice and regularly hopped the fence to run on the field and lift in the fitness center in the offseason. He played games in front of friends and family, and often not many of either. "It can feel small," Noonan says. "But Brandon made it big."

Noonan can go on and on. He'll tell you about the game he decided he was going to play Aiyuk on defense because the opponent had a D1 receiver that only Aiyuk could match. He called it "cat coverage," which means, "See that cat? Stay with that cat." To keep Aiyuk somewhat rested, he told him he wouldn't be returning punts or kicks in the game, and it took until Tuesday or Wednesday for Noonan to realize Aiyuk was freezing him out.

"What's wrong, Brandon?" Noonan asked. "Something seems off."

"Coach, you took me off special teams," Aiyuk said.

Noonan explained that he wanted to make sure he got at least a little rest, and that if a situation came up late in the game when he needed Aiyuk to return a punt or a kick, he'd definitely call on him.

"Coach, I can change the game on the first kick return," Aiyuk said. "I can change the game on the first punt return."

It was the look in his eyes that made Noonan cave, and Aiyuk played every single play of the game. He scored five touchdowns: two punt returns, one kickoff return and two receptions, but the kick return and one of the punt returns were nullified by penalties that Noonan says were incidental to the play. And that cat? He had one catch.

When that story is relayed back to him, Aiyuk tries to deflect the attention. "Coach always tells that story," he says. "I don't exactly remember the moment, but I do remember him telling the story."

In two years at Sierra, Aiyuk's blip on the radar screen began to get closer and closer to the target. His second season at Sierra was followed by a relatively spirited recruiting season dampened only slightly by the fact that Aiyuk needed to finish 23 units (with no C's) during the spring semester to be eligible to play at a Power 5 school in the fall. Alabama came in late, with an offer to play defensive back, so Aiyuk chose to play receiver at Arizona State.

One of the first things Aiyuk told Noonan when he got to Sierra was that he understood the importance of schoolwork, but he just didn't care much for it. His academic issues were always a matter of application and not aptitude, and with his future dangling ahead of him, he completed the 23 units -- with a 3.8 GPA -- and earned his eligibility.

Marner, the coach at McQueen, says, "For Brandon to rebound after the hole he dug himself might be his greatest achievement."

TO EXCEL AS a receiver in Shanahan's offense, being fast isn't enough; you have to be fast in a hurry. And being fast in a hurry isn't enough, either; you have to be fast in a hurry with precision. And when you're not being fast in a hurry with precision, you better be blocking for someone who is.

Shanahan is tough on receivers. His system requires more than merely beating a defender to a specific spot. It might mean getting to one hashmark 7.5 yards downfield at a very precise time, and then making a cut and getting to another spot 10 yards from there at another very precise time. The wizardry of the 49ers' offense lies in the geometry and the timing.

"Kyle played receiver, he's coached receivers, he's been with receivers," Aiyuk says. "So yeah, he's more hands-on with that group. He has a vision for how he wants the group to look and carry themselves and get the job done."

When Aiyuk came to the 49ers four seasons ago as a first-round pick, he was like the math whiz who thought the end result was the only thing that mattered. He'd get where he was supposed to be, and he'd probably be open, but he didn't show his steps. He was productive, but his numbers his first two seasons -- 60 catches in 2020, 56 in '21 -- stayed flat and far below the expectation for a first-round pick.

"But from the first time I watched him, you could tell what was coming," receiver Jauan Jennings says. "No matter what was going on, you could look at him and know: that's what a first-rounder looks like."

There were murmurs that Aiyuk wasn't a hard worker -- a charge that mystified every coach in his past -- and that he was a permanent resident of Shanahan's doghouse, a concept that still causes both men to recoil.

"I don't think there was one eye-opening moment where it all came together," says Aiyuk, whom Lenoir describes as the "best stop-and-start runner in the NFL."

"I think there were multiple different moments where you kind of see it in live time or you go back and watch the film and you're just like, 'OK, I understand now why they're saying that, or I understand why this needs to be done this way.' Over time, you just get to understand the full picture."

He plays the one spot on the field where selfishness is both rampant and easiest to hide. Offensive linemen have to be selfless, but wide receivers?

"They don't," says guard Aaron Banks with a laugh. And that's why it's a testament to the 49ers' receivers, and to Shanahan's demands, that they are among the fiercest and most persistent downfield blockers in the NFL.

"I didn't really block until I came here," Aiyuk says. "Once you realize that's how it needs to be done, you see that it's the only way it can be done. It's the standard we hold the entire team to."

Against the Seahawks in Week 12, Aiyuk blocked cornerback Devon Witherspoon twice, more than 30 yards apart, on a game-opening, 72-yard run by McCaffrey. Every week it was someone else: Steelers safety Damontae Kazee; Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen; Seattle's Julian Love. Aiyuk's body of work earned him the title of best blocking wideout by ESPN's Matt Bowen.

"What I see is just how strong BA is," Jennings says. "The amount of linebackers and defensive ends he just tosses around? You don't see that. He just manhandles people. I'm bigger so I'm more of a hitter, but the way he throws people around is more impressive. He just never stops."

IT WAS A simple one-on-one goal-line drill during a practice one day at Sierra College. Aiyuk, facing the goal line at the 3 with the ball in his hand, was paired up against a teammate who was tasked with keeping Aiyuk out of the end zone. From a two-point stance, Aiyuk stepped to his right, chopped his feet twice and took flight. He scissored his legs at the peak of his jump, and the defender -- not a small, young man -- ran through them as if Aiyuk's corporal body had vanished in midair.

A few of Aiyuk's teammates put their hands to their helmets, and one rushed toward him in celebration, but the overall effect was one of subdued admiration. What Aiyuk did on that sleepy afternoon in Rocklin was similar to what he did when he hurdled the Eagles' Darius Slay near the sideline on a long touchdown in 2020, or what he did when he stayed with the ball after it bounced off Vildor's face mask in the NFC Championship Game.

A brief clip of the practice hurdle found its way onto social media. There was the requisite disbelief at such an act, followed by the customary snark. In this case, it was directed at Sierra's program, which must be a militant operation where fun -- even fun as obvious as this -- was discouraged.

"We caught a lot of flak because nobody responded the way everyone expected us to respond," Noonan says. "The reaction was, 'Wow, they must not have any fun at Sierra College.' The truth is, Brandon did something like that at least once a week, maybe more. We were used to it. How excited were we supposed to be?"

In other words: Get back in the huddle and move on to the next play. There's only so many times you can be in disbelief before you start believing it. And there's only so long you can stay unknown before the whole world starts believing along with you.

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