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How the always elated, once-questioned Kendrick Bourne has become 49ers’ ole reliable

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For weeks, Kyle Shanahan waited, imploring someone, anyone, to make a decision for him. As so many position battles came clearer into focus, the receiving group remained unimpressive and without clarity. He must have said each week of the preseason that he wanted someone to stand out, but nothing changed.

“We have a bunch of guys that can play, but I want someone to make the decision easy for us,” Shanahan said August 11. “I want someone to take the job and make it to where it’s extremely obvious. We haven’t had that yet. We have a bunch of young guys who are extremely hungry and they are going for it, and we have some other guys who have been here who have also been that way, but I think guys are very evenly-matched right now and I want someone to step it up.”

Bourne’s established himself in 49ers’ elite wide receiver trio, smile and all

It might have taken half a season, but Shanahan has found his answer in the three-headed hydra of Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne. Sanders might be a top-15 wide receiver and is a clear No. 1 for the 49ers, acquired through a season-defining trade with the Denver Broncos. Samuel was expected to contribute right away with his second round draft slot, and has done so, only growing into the season.

But Bourne?

Bourne was one of the final players to make the roster cut, and along with Richie James Jr., beat out Jordan Matthews (who’s back with the 49ers for the third time this season). At this point, Bourne (27 receptions, 318 yards, and a team-leading 5 TD) has become the 49ers’ clutch wide receiver, with a knack for plays that move the chains when San Francisco is desperate for someone to get them out of the mud, and George Kittle isn’t available, or targeted.

On situations of third and more than seven yards, Bourne has five first-down catches, which is tied not just with Kittle for the best on the 49ers, but tied for 19th-best in the NFL. Of his 27 receptions, a staggering 20 have resulted in first downs (74.1 percent), which ranks 18th in the NFL for percent of first down receptions.

This is a guy who came out of Eastern Washington University under the radar, undrafted and outshined by teammate Cooper Kupp. He so frustrated head coach Kyle Shanahan with his lack of punctuality as a rookie that, after missing a meeting, Shanahan brought him into his office for a one-on-one that changed Bourne’s career. Bourne was not given the chance to speak, and it amounted to a reckoning from Shanahan with a clear message: slip up again, and you’re gone.

Both have acknowledged that the meeting changed Bourne’s career, and when asked about the meeting, and Bourne in general, Shanahan did what everyone who’s asked about Bourne does: smile.

You will rarely find Bourne without an ear-to-ear grin and he sustains an energy that’s unfathomably contagious. And as Jimmy Garoppolo said Wednesday, it’s “not fake.” Shanahan admitted it bothered him for nearly all of Bourne’s rookie year because it would sometimes show up at the wrong times.

“Bourne’s a funny guy. He reminds me a lot of my son who’s nine,” Shanahan said. “I don’t mean that as an insult, kind of. I’m good with Bourne so he should be alright with it. When you sit there and get on him, he still sits there and smiles at you. And at first, it used to drive me crazy because it’s like, ‘Are you not bothered by it?’

He is. He’s trying his hardest, he’s trying to go out there. He really loves to play football. I think you guys can see how he plays and sometimes I think that can get taken the wrong way in terms of he’s not locked in and detailed on it, and he is. He works at it all week.

He has a lot of fun out there, which, sometimes he will make some mistakes, but I also think it’s kind of his gift and his curse. It’s also why he’s never freaking out out there, either. I mean, he is loose and the game is not too big for him, no matter what the situation is. Sometimes I’m like I’m glad he doesn’t know how big this moment is because he looks fearless as can be. You’ve got to deal with that stuff a lot, but sometimes you’ve got to make a point. And if you really want him to lock in, sometimes you’ve got to make it a little bit personal and usually then he locks in, still with a smile, which I’ve gotten used to. But, usually they remember those and I only have to do it a couple times. Usually when you do, he doesn’t forget about it.”

Bourne took no offense to the comparison to Shanahan’s son, and recalled the infamous meeting with a bit more fondness than in the past, saying that he and Shanahan now understand each other.

“He knows the kind of personality, so I know he understands,” Bourne said. “He had that serious talk to me after I had that meeting I missed that rookie year. He was just really serious with me. I know that’s a situation where I can’t be smiling, but a lot of the times, he knows my personality. He knows I’m taking the coaching, but he knows how I go about things. I just try to be positive about everything, so that’s why I’m always smiling.”

What’s clicked?

Outside of that mutual understanding with Shanahan, Bourne pointed to a number of things changing in year three, many of which happened during the year. Jimmy Garoppolo has grown into the season, and for as much as he dissuaded talk of his ACL recovery as a cause from concern, it’s clear Garoppolo had some rust to shake off from the outset, as any quarterback would, let alone one who still has yet to complete a full season.

But year three was also invaluable from a knowledge base, Bourne said. Shanahan’s offense is notoriously difficult for skill position players who are unaccustomed to it (Emmanuel Sanders came from Rich Scangarello’s offense in Denver, which he described as being “90 percent” similar), and Bourne said he’s far more “intuitive” with the playbook and said he has true belief that Shanahan has far more faith in him now than in his first two season.

Bourne is known on the team for having fantastic hands, but he dropped two key passes against the Seattle Seahawks; one of which was intercepted, and another which should have been. He was harsh on himself back then, and was animated in the locker room after the game talking to teammates about knowing he’s better than that.

“I really just be down on myself, because those kinds of things can’t happen,” Bourne said after the game. “I am kind of one of those guys that will beat up on himself.”

Shanahan described Bourne as having such good hands that he can sometimes relax and shift his attention to taking the ball upfield, something Bourne agreed with. His method for correcting those mistakes was simple: more reps on the jugs machine.

“Just getting more jugs because through the week we don’t get a lot of catches,” Bourne said. “Just getting jugs. We throw with Wes on the side, Wes Welker just giving us extra catches, working on our eyes. He’ll still sit behind us, we’ll catch balls from not seeing the quarterback throwing it or whatever, just little things to help my eyes, hand-eye coordination improve in any way I can.”

Welker, the 49ers’ wide receivers coach, and Miles Austin, an offensive quality control, are the duo who work with the 49ers’ wide receivers on a constant basis, and have obviously retained insights from their not-so-distant playing days. Bourne told KNBR having Welker and Austin as coaches is almost unfair.

“It’s almost like cheating,” Bourne said. “Those guys are so smart, man. Wes could see the ins and out of every probably coverage you heard. Same with Miles. So just when we’re off the field, like on the sideline, when defense is going, they just give us a lot of tips that we can use when we’re out there so it’s definitely. It helps a lot.”

Bourne said his first touchdown against the Saints was in part a result of Welker’s drills.

“In that Saints game I kind of didn’t see that first touchdown,” Bourne said. “I kind of just found the ball in the air so just those little drills benefiting the big time situations.”

In all three of Bourne’s receptions against the Saints, he had to work for them.

His first catch, a first down on third-and-six, required a quick burst to turn upfield and a dive to secure the first down. His first touchdown, as he mentioned (and as you can see below) was mostly instinct, playing off the defender for a grab which he said he didn’t actually see. His second touchdown and third catch was arguably the most impressive. He spun off the defensive back, extending the play in a scramble situation, where Garoppolo found him open.

“KB, he finds the space,” Garoppolo said. “He’s a good, instinctive player who if the initial play isn’t there or a little off-schedule, he has no problem working. He puts his hands up, you know, all those little things that you do when the play breaks down. He’s phenomenal at it.”

The question for Bourne has never been his raw talent, or the polish that he’s cultivated. It’s been mental. Can he stay focused? Can he follow the play through, and hold onto the ball?

Maybe it wasn’t the case early on in his career, but Bourne’s proven his growth.

“When we were in the Superdome, loudest moments of the game, he was as locked in as anybody,” Garoppolo said. “He has that ability to hit the switch and he knows when to lock in, when to enjoy himself and when he scores touchdowns, obviously, he enjoys himself. He knows his role and he knows what it takes to get it done.”


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