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‘Definitely surreal’: Inside Daniel Brunskill’s uncertain trip from AAF to 49ers’ starting tackle



© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Four straight years of losing. Now 4-0.

Four years of college before earning a scholarship… as a tight end. Now a starting right tackle against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams.

These are the scenarios for the 49ers and their new starting right tackle Daniel Brunskill. It’s safe to say Brunskill didn’t expect things to play out this way. Not as a walk-on blocking tight end at San Diego State University. Not as a converted and then undrafted tackle who had to make it work in the American Alliance of Football (AAF) and didn’t know if he was even allowed to sign with NFL teams once the league folded. Not as a player whose name was unknown to head coach Kyle Shanahan for the start of his time with the 49ers.

But after a torn ACL for Shon Coleman in the preseason, a broken fibula for Joe Staley, and a knee which Mike McGlinchey underwent arthroscopic surgery for, it’s Brunskill’s chance to be a starting NFL tackle.

Shanahan admitted there’s not much he knew about Brunskill when he was added as one of a dozen offensive linemen on the roster.

“He was number 61 for a while for me and then he became Brunskill because he was low on the radar as it started out, but he earned his spot on this team,” Shanahan said. “He did a real good job. That’s why he was on the team. That’s why he wasn’t on practice squad and when he got in there for one play versus Pittsburgh and did a hell of a job, got to play a little bit two nights ago versus Cleveland, very similar to [left tackle Justin] Skule in that the game is not too big for him, he’s very efficient, he’s a smart player. He will get the job done and he will be ready for the challenge on third down.”

There was some uncertainty as to who was due credit for Brunskill’s acquisition. Brunskill said he wasn’t sure who scouted him and Shanahan credited vice president of player personnel Adam Peters and the rest of the scouting department for finding him. But it was one scout, R.J. Gillen, a former LSU championship winner from the 2007 team—also a lawyer, though hes’ not currently practicing—who found Brunskill in his hometown of San Diego, playing for the San Diego Fleet of the now-defunct AAF.

General manager John Lynch credited Gillen on KNBR on Friday for his scouting endeavors.

“Sometimes these scouts are the unsung heroes and R.J. Gillen came to us and said, ‘I really have a good feeling about this Danny Brunskill.’ We brought him in for a workout, he looked good, he kept looking better throughout the offseason,” Lynch said. “When you’re talking about those backup players on the offensive line, to make a team, you have to do a lot of things. He played every position on the offensive line throughout camp, even center, which he had never done and he kept showing value and here he is with a great opportunity… We’re confident that he’s going to go out and perform in a really good way.”

Brunskill was just one of many linemen on the initial roster in training camp, beating out guards Najee Toran and Joshua Garnett to back up an interior position at which he had little experience. He also beat out veteran swing tackle Sam Young for a roster spot and now, the fifth backup role (with the injured Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Shon Coleman and healthy Justin Skule all ahead of him). Young is back on the roster now as the last line of defense, should Brunskill or Skule get injured.

To even make it to the point where the 49ers offered him the opportunity to work out seemed miles away from where Brunskill began his football career. After attending high school at Valley Center High School in northern San Diego, he walked on to the SDSU football team as an offensive lineman, redshirting his freshman year, and converting to tight end the following year. It was not until his redshirt junior year, in 2015, when he received a scholarship before the start of the season.

He didn’t play in his redshirt freshman year, but earned All-Conference honors in his junior season. In his senior year, he moved back to tackle, and went undrafted in 2017, spending the following two seasons on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad before signing with the Fleet before the start of this season.

Brunskill said the opportunity to play in the AAF was massive in that it allowed him to showcase his ability against some NFL-caliber players as a starter, despite whatever negative perception there was surrounding the league.

“I think the AAF was actually pretty huge for me, it was a good chance to get out there and play more games, play more live situations, and then just get better and work on techniques and go against some players that have played in the NFL that are actually really good,” Brunskill said. “So I thought it was a great process for me to go through… there were plenty of guys that played and could have made NFL teams or did make NFL teams.”

As beneficial as the experience proved to be, Brunskill said he had no clue what to expect when the AAF folded. He was signed by the 49ers on April 11, nine days after the league ceased all operations, and six days before it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

“It was kind of just uncertainty because you didn’t know what would happen,” Brunskill said. “It kind of ended abruptly and then you didn’t know what was going to go on, like how it ended it was kind of weird. So the guys didn’t know if like you could sign with teams or not. So it was kind of just out of the blue. You didn’t really know what was going on.”

While Brunskill (age 25) went to SDSU and Skule (age 22) was a four-year starter at Vanderbilt in the SEC who was drafted in the sixth round, they share similarities in their youth and the fact that they went about their business in a quiet way that impressed the coaching staff on the field.

Brunskill’s roommate for OTAs, Ross Dwelley, told KNBR both he and Brunskill are “quiet” guys, and while he pointed out that Staley and McGlinchey are still around, the vibe is admittedly different with a pair of young, quiet guys as the offensive bookends, rather than the boisterous star pairing most fans are accustomed to seeing.

Shanahan’s appraisal was much the same.

“Him and Skule, I very rarely hear them talk, which new guys are like that a little bit because Joe and McGlinchey don’t give much time for anybody to talk,” Shanahan said. “But, no those guys are part of the group. They’re quiet, but they go to work every day and that’s kind of how their demeanor is on the field too.”

The evolution of Brunskill in Shanahan’s eyes from “Number 61” to “Brunskill” to a starting right tackle who Shanahan expressed confidence in, is not something Brunskill accepted without some retrospection. Asked what his trip from walk-on to going undrafted to hanging—temporarily—in limbo in the AAF, Brunskill did his best to hold back emotions.

“Definitely surreal,” Brunskill said, pausing as his voice shook. “It’s pretty awesome. You know, every level has been like that. So it’s pretty cool to be a part of that and say I’ve been able to do that.”