Photos courtesy of Georgia Southern
Jerick McKinnon had just agreed to sign with the 49ers, marking one of the most significant days of his life. After spending the first four years of his career as a third-down back in Minnesota, he was paid to be a feature back in San Francisco, while moving to an area of the country he had only visited on occasional road trips.
McKinnon made two immediate calls to share the news. The first went to his mother, Frances. The second went to 49ers running back Matt Breida.
On that May 14th morning, McKinnon and Breida celebrated, reminisced, and looked ahead to a re-established partnership. Five years earlier, they shared the same backfield at Georgia Southern, once an FCS program hardly established as an NFL pipeline.
“It felt like just yesterday we were at Georgia Southern,” Breida said. “We were ready to get back together and bring greatness to the 49ers.”
Out of the five Georgia Southern alums currently playing in the NFL, Breida and McKinnon, San Francisco’s 1-2 punch entering the 2018 season, are the only running backs.
They first crossed paths in Statesboro, a small, southeast Georgia town and the home of Georgia Southern, in the fall of 2013. Breida was a freshman. McKinnon was a senior and the face of a budding program on the verge of making the leap to Division I.
Breida knew all about McKinnon, the team’s starting quarterback, rotational running back, and occasional defensive back. The first time Breida encountered McKinnon, nicknamed ‘Jet,’ he was squatting 600 pounds — on a pulled hamstring.
“(I was like), ‘Holy crap. This is crazy. I have never seen this before,’” Breida said. “Anything Jet did, I tried to follow.”
It was a fitting introduction for a player who inspired Breida. The odds of an NFL career were inherently slim for Georgia Southern prospects, playing in a region infested with pro talent at bigger schools. The only Georgia Southern running back that McKinnon and Breida knew had made the NFL was eight-year Chicago Bears veteran Adrian Peterson— not to be confused with the longtime Vikings running back.
As McKinnon progressed as an upperclassman, it became clear he was next in line. McKinnon ran the triple-option as the team’s starting quarterback, leading the team in rushing in both his junior and senior seasons.
Listen to his coaches and former teammates tell stories about his college career, and it starts sounding like a modern folktale.
During his sophomore year, injuries among the defensive backfield forced the Georgia Southern coaches to play him both ways, despite his inexperience on defense. In his first game at defensive back, he recorded three interceptions. Fast forward to the final game of his college career, and McKinnon led Georgia Southern to its biggest upset in program history. He scored the game-winning touchdown in a 26-20 win at Florida.
“Jerick really set the standard on the next wave of running backs to come through,” Breida said. “I always wanted to be like him. I knew he was going to go to the NFL, so that’s how I wanted to get there— by following everything he did.”
McKinnon nurtured the younger backs by example. He was the strongest lifter of the group and consistently finished first in conditioning drills. At the 2014 NFL Combine, the 5-foot-9 McKinnon lifted 32 bench reps, the second-most ever for a running back at the event.
On May 9th, 2014, McKinnon’s hard work culminated when the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft.
“When I was there, the thing that always came to my mind when I left school, was, ‘What did I want the coaches or the players who are younger than me, watching me, to remember me by?’” McKinnon said. “I worked my butt off to get to where I was. I didn’t know that I would be in the league, or be in the league this long. I just knew where I wanted to go.”
Breida followed McKinnon’s blueprint. After being delegated to special teams duties during his freshman season, Breida succeeded McKinnon as the team’s starting running back one year later. In that 2014 season, Georgia Southern’s first as a Division I team, the Eagles won the Sun Belt Conference.
Breida led the Sun Belt in rushing yards and was named a first-team all-conference player. He led the country with 8.78 yards per carry. As a junior, he did it all again. Breida ran for 1,608 yards, 17 touchdowns, and averaged 7.9 yards per carry — leading the nation for the second consecutive year.
Breida’s numbers dipped during his senior season, partly due to a coaching change and roster turnover. He ran for nearly 1,000 yards fewer than his junior campaign, fading from NFL radars.
He had still produced one the most productive careers in recent Georgia Southern history. Perhaps most impressive, the running back group experienced little-to-no drop-off when Breida replaced McKinnon.
“Those two guys were very important in our transition from FCS to FBS and showed that Georgia Southern did belong in Division I football,” said Georgia Southern head coach Chad Lunsford.
Similar to his predecessor, Breida helped his pro prospects when he blew away his Pro Day. He lifted 23 bench press reps, ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, 42-inch vertical jump, and 142-inch broad jump — all numbers that would have put him in the top-three of all running backs invited to the Combine.
But he was not drafted. The 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent one week later.
The similarities between McKinnon and Breida are vast. McKinnon is 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, compared to Breida’s 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame. Neither were major recruits. Both were instrumental in transforming Georgia Southern into a respectable Division I program.
Both have spent their NFL careers primarily as third-down backs. McKinnon was stuck amid a revolving cycle in Minnesota, where Adrian Peterson, Latavius Murray, and Dalvin Cook were the featured runners on base downs throughout McKinnon’s four years. Last year, in Breida’s rookie season, he beat out Joe Williams for the No. 2 spot in the rotation and assumed a similar third-down role behind leading rusher Carlos Hyde.
Above all, McKinnon and Breida approach their craft with a similar relentless mindset they developed in the same place.
“We both play with that chip on our shoulder,” Breida said. “People say, ‘Oh you guys are from Georgia Southern, blah blah blah.’ But Georgia Southern, we will still beat you guys.”
“And we are not that big,” added McKinnon, sitting beside Breida. “We are not big backs. But, we play big. We play like giants.”
Neither player is getting comfortable despite promising roles entering the 2018 season. McKinnon wants to prove his lucrative four-year contract, which includes $11.7 million guaranteed, was warranted. Breida wants to build off a solid rookie season, while fending off Williams as the No. 2 option for a second straight season.
“No matter what happens, stay humble,” McKinnon said. “Keep working. The work you put in, it’ll eventually show.”
That McKinnon and Breida get to enjoy their NFL journeys together adds excitement as they enter important seasons in their careers. Oddly enough, their current situation reminds them of college.
The San Francisco glitz could not contrast the southeast, Georgia grit any more, but that’s not how they see it. They view the 49ers as an organization filled with longstanding tradition, rooted in a place that loves football and treats its players like rock stars— just like Georgia Southern.
“It’s the same sense of feeling, just on a bigger scale,” McKinnon said.
“It’s a unique situation,” Breida said. “I feel like I am back in college, almost.”
In the nearly three months since McKinnon moved to the Bay Area, he and Breida have grown closer than ever before. They’re always together at the 49ers facilities. They haven’t been able to hang out away from football because Breida is married— McKinnon jokes Breida is “tied up”— but they are planning on it now that mini camp has concluded. Their growing friendship has acclimated McKinnon to a new team and city nearly 2,500 miles from his Atlanta hometown.
Neither McKinnon nor Breida has had time to revisit Georgia Southern since they left, yet they continue to indirectly promote their alma mater.
“For both of our guys to be on the 49ers, I think that is going to bring a lot of exposure to us,” Lunsford said.
Lunsford uses McKinnon and Breida as prime examples for the current Georgia Southern players pursuing their NFL goals. Breida says current seniors occasionally call him to thank him for paving the way to the league. He credits McKinnon for the same thing.
“I just go back and think, it started with (McKinnon),” Breida said. “I followed him, and now those guys look at me and keep on going.”
McKinnon and Breida’s college careers will forever be immortalized in a downstairs hallway next to the equipment room at Georgia Southern’s football facility, where every NFL alum has a shrine with his name and corresponding NFL team. Breida will soon be added alongside McKinnon, whose Vikings jersey will be changed to a 49ers one.
Georgia Southern’s influence on McKinnon is also evident.
When asked what his alma mater means to him, McKinnon pulls down the top of his shirt to reveal the tattoos on his chest. He points to the eagle, emblazoned across the middle as a tribute to his Georgia Southern roots, always resting at his core.
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradalmquist13.