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Inside Brandon Aiyuk’s ascension, impact in unlocking 49ers’ offense



© Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In the old days of the 49ers’ dynasty, the team spent its summers in Rocklin, California, on the campus of Sierra College.

In 1998, the team left for Stockton.

But in Rocklin, in March of that year, Brandon Aiyuk was born. He cut a serpentine path to the NFL, spending two years at Sierra College — walking the halls and taking the field those same 49ers legends made their haunt two decades earlier.

Aiyuk hasn’t forgotten those junior college roots in Rocklin. But six years after he began at Sierra, and with a first-career 1,000-yard season under his belt, Aiyuk is on the precipice of NFL stardom.

Under the tutelage of the 49ers coaching staff, Aiyuk has developed himself into the type of wideout Bill Walsh, Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan envision: a physical receiver who can block and disguise his routes with discipline and precision.

Aiyuk will be tested in Sunday’s NFC Championship against a prolific Eagles defense, with a chance to send the 49ers back to the Super Bowl and make amends for last year’s sour-taste loss to the Rams.

His expanded role, commitment to learning the craft, and personal growth in Shanahan’s system has helped him become a reliable option in his third year as a pro. For the 49ers to have a chance at a potential sixth championship, they need Aiyuk at his most ruthless.

His edge

It is not a surprise that Aiyuk flies under the radar.

Aiyuk is well known. But for someone who would be the No. 1 receiver on roughly half the rosters in the NFL, his name is not one that carries the borderline elite perception or gravitas as some of his cohorts.

That’s natural, given that he is on a roster with arguably the league’s best tight end, running back, fullback, left tackle, a 2021 OPOY candidate in Deebo Samuel, and maybe the league’s best play caller in Kyle Shanahan.

His disposition, and the timing of his NFL arrival, is also part of that perception. He doesn’t exactly celebrate like Terrell Owens.

Aiyuk’s first season was promising, but came during that soulless, (mostly) empty-stadium-defined COVID campaign of 2020. He had a slow start to the 2021 campaign while Samuel carried the offense.

2022 was the first year he ever dealt with reporters in the locker room, a fact he was reminded of as he was surrounded by a Wednesday scrum — a huddle that’s increased in size in the postseason.

Aiyuk is reserved. He is one of the more laid-back personalities in the 49ers locker room. He isn’t boring, just pensive and quietly funny — as highlighted last season by the dry-humored Mike McDaniel.

But it would be a mistake to interpret his quiet disposition as a sign of fragility. His play is incisive. He’s an aggressor, both with his footwork and aggression as a blocker.

It was apparent from the very start of training camp that Aiyuk was on a trajectory for a substantial leap. He was the offensive star of camp, lighting up the field and earning plaudits in daily notebooks.

Fred Warner felt Aiyuk needed an extra push.

So Warner, who is buttoned-up off the field and more vocal than anyone on it, agitated Aiyuk by design. He started talking trash to him and showing a little more love on tackles that aren’t supposed to be full speed in August.

Aiyuk eventually responded, swinging at Warner and going to the ground in a scuffle the day after a halfhearted one between them. Another one broke out later in that same practice, with Aiyuk going to the ground with a separate defensive player following a late, hard hit from Warner on KeeSean Johnson.

Warner, who had worked out with Aiyuk in the 2021 offseason, made his intentions plain to media.

“Specifically with Brandon, I chose him out,” Warner said. “I specifically said I think he’s ready to make that next step into playing at that elite level. And ever since he’s gotten here, I’ve kind of gotten after him a little bit, going around the locker room and around the building. Because I know how much he has in him and I know if I kind of nag him a little bit, he’s gonna start getting sick and tired of that and start to kind of hold his own… I’m just trying to get the best out of him, that’s it.”

The day before that fight, Aiyuk half-jokingly said that Warner is “annoying” on the field.

Aiyuk said he was “tired of seeing” the defense every day and that the fight stemmed from trash talk between either group. He pointed to a culture of physicality in the locker room as evidence of why it played out how it did.

“You turn on the tape and you watch the Niners nobody is backing down to anyone,” Aiyuk said. “So I feel like when we go against each other and people butt heads, that’s what happens. I’m not backing down, he’s not backing down either… At the end of the day that’s my brother when we go back in the locker room, that’s my brother when we leave. That’s my brother, so it is what it is. We’ve moved on.”

Aiyuk is the quiet dude who’s not afraid to flex in your face.

But unlike a lot of receivers, most of Aiyuk’s celebrations in defenders faces come after impressive blocks. Like with Warner, he can be an agitator.

Subtle frustrations after pre-NFL dominance

The chippiness Aiyuk has shown in the league is new to his former college coach, Ben Noonan.

Before Aiyuk was drafted and before he joined Herm Edwards’ program at Arizona State — one of the few schools, along with Kansas, and unlike Alabama, that wanted him as a receiver, not a corner — he was coached by Noonan at Sierra College.

Because Aiyuk played just one year of football in high school at Robert McQueen in Reno, Nevada, he wasn’t recruited heavily. His only real option was the junior college route at Sierra.

Noonan said in a phone call with KNBR on Friday that the edge Aiyuk has shown in the NFL didn’t show up back then.

“To be honest with you — his sophomore year especially — he just was really dominating everybody that he went against,” Noonan said. “Nobody really got in his face. So I didn’t see a whole lot of that honestly; this is a new side.”

That dominance can also explain some of the frustrations Aiyuk ran into, especially in his second year with the 49ers.

After a 748-yard season in just 12 games his rookie year, Aiyuk struggled early in his sophomore campaign, with a hamstring injury in training camp partially to blame.

He didn’t see a single target in the season opener and took roughly half of the offensive snaps through two games, losing time to Trent Sherfield.

Through six games, Aiyuk had been targeted just 16 times for nine catches and 96 yards. He had just one receiving TD. He was on a season-long pace for 26 catches for 272 yards and 3 TDs.

It raised alarm bells, at least from the outside looking in. The 49ers couldn’t afford another Dante Pettis situation.

Kyle Shanahan was notoriously hard on Pettis, and he was openly critical of Aiyuk, while also maintaining that he was making progress.

“I want Aiyuk to keep getting better. I don’t think he’s quite back to where he was last year,” Shanahan said October 27 of 2021. “And I expected him to be better this year than last year. I think he’s still trying to get back to that point… but he needs to get there.”

What, exactly, was Aiyuk doing wrong? How could such a promising young receiver be deserving of such criticism and fallen out of favor for Sherfield?

McDaniel — then the 49ers’ offensive coordinator — gave the closest thing to a concrete answer. He was asked about the importance of making every route look identical and whether that’s something Aiyuk had to amend.

The suggestion from McDaniel was that Aiyuk may have been tipping his hand a bit in running his routes:

It’s very important. That is the skill of receiver play one-on-one. First and foremost, your advantage as an offensive player, when you’re running a route, is the defender doesn’t know what you’re doing. That’s bottom line…

If someone’s trying to guard you, if you can make everything look the same, it’s a lot more difficult to guard someone. That’s our advantage.

And that is something — definitely — that’s some of what we’ve been talking about in terms of needing him to develop. Yeah, that’s part of it.

To get him to understand, to look through the lens of a defender with every route and what tools that receivers that are successful have. One of the foundational, fundamental things of that is making all routes look the same. Starting with the go route and then moving on from there.

Eventually, though, it clicked.

The break out of the sophomore slump, and buy-in

In Week 8 of last year, a crucial, 33-22 win over the Chicago Bears, Aiyuk hit a season high for receiving targets, with seven, and caught four balls for 45 yards. From that point on, he was heavily involved in the offense, averaging 6.2 targets, 4.3 catches and 66.4 yards per game.

McDaniel pointed out a shift in what he’d seen from Aiyuk following that game.

He also emphasized that coaches assess performance in totality; an impressive statistical game might be more flawed than an underwhelming one on the books. That can be confusing when criticizing skill position players and requires understanding and high-level teaching:

It’s not, ‘okay yeah. He caught 10 balls today.’ Well, your job is to catch balls. It’s how you go about everything. And it takes a while for rookies to really understand, ‘Okay, why are we irritated at this play that I just caught a six-yard hitch? I was open.’

We’re looking through the lens of like, ‘Okay, how’s this going to look against their starting corner? What is the standard with which how you do things? And how successful is that going to be over time?’

So, you’re looking at concretely how they’re doing things, the approach, the urgency — really adhering to the timing of plays and separating and being where you’re supposed to be and doing everything we emphasize, that’s a good practice. You may not get any catches in that. You may just run, but in that process, the quarterback is watching the tape intently and saying, ‘Wow, I can rely on this guy.’

So for Brandon, especially these last couple of weeks, he’s looked like the player that we envisioned when we drafted him.

In terms of, he’s got a lot of physical tools, but he also has a mindset and he’s a young guy that’s finally starting to understand what it means to be a pro and approach every practice like, ‘Hey, I’m determining the game on Wednesday. I’m winning the game on Thursday.’ That’s been the difference and I think it’s that gray, but it’s that obvious to the whole offense.

Aiyuk has bought into that philosophy wholeheartedly.

After his best statistical performance of this season — a nine-catch, 101-yard, 1 TD performance (plus a 16-yard run), against the Las Vegas Raiders — Shanahan’s first postgame comments about Aiyuk were partially critical.

“I thought Aiyuk really rebounded well,” Shanahan said. “I thought he was struggling a lot in that game, but he ended up making some big plays at the end that really helped us win, so I thought it was a hell of a job by him just overcoming how some things started and he ended up finishing real strong.” 

Pressed for details, Shanahan reaffirmed that holistic belief, saying Aiyuk struggled with “a number of things” that don’t show up in the box score.

When it comes to receiving, numbers can lie.

“I know wideouts only really get noticed when they get catches, but they are either blocking or running a route on every single other play too,” Shanahan said. “Just whether they get the ball or not isn’t really what you always judge off of. There’s responsibilities on each play, so that’s why you can’t always judge how great of a game it was based off of stats.

“I know it was great that he got over 100 yards, which I was happy for him. He deserved it. He was one of the reasons why we won there at the end. I’m just saying that he’s had some better games throughout the year.”

Aiyuk was in agreement.

He told KNBR before the wild-card matchup with Seattle that he’s never disagreed with the coaching staff’s assessment of his performance.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a game where I felt like I had a good game and then they felt like I’ve had a bad game,” Aiyuk said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised by him saying, ‘Oh, he could do more,’ because I definitely feel that same way as well.

“So I saw something a couple of weeks ago in Vegas where it was my best game statistically, but that wasn’t my best game at all. So I feel the same way. It didn’t take for him to tell me that I had a bad game. I know when I had things that I could do better at or need to get done or do something differently or just play a better game. So we’re normally on the same page with those things.”

If not the Raiders game, what were Aiyuk’s best games?

He singled out two performances that would otherwise not gain notoriety in the grand picture of his season, and none of his six games with five-plus catches and 81-plus receiving yards.

Aiyuk identified Week 12 against the New Orleans Saints and Week 14 against Tampa Bay Buccaneers as him at his best. Neither was dominant from a statistical perspective; he had five catches for 65 yards against New Orleans and two catches (tied for a season low) for 57 yards and a TD against Tampa Bay.

Those two games stood out in Aiyuk’s mind because he — cliche as the phrase is — said he played with a playoff mindset.

“I was just not worried about the football coming my way and not worried about anything else besides getting my job done,” Aiyuk said. “I think that showed up in the way I ran my routes, the way I blocked, the way I played a complete game. I think (those were) my two best games mindset-wise going into the game and in the game.

“That’s why I love playing football because none of that matters. It’s just every single play, what can I do to help the team on this play? Every single play.”

Taking the next step

To get past that year two hump and reach the point he’s at now was less than straightforward. Go back to Noonan’s quote from his days at Sierra, where he was, “dominating everybody.”

He was dominant at Arizona State, too.

But the NFL has a propensity to humble you. Quickly.

Aiyuk admitted that it was frustrating at times. You’ve had success at every stage of your life, and all of a sudden you’re being told you’re doing your job wrong? It’s can be a tough proposition to face.

But he told KNBR that it clicked because Shanahan and the 49ers’ staff is relentless in teaching. Not telling, but showing; they provide examples and comparisons to help players understand a concept. Again, again, and again until it sticks.

Aiyuk said they were persistent with him. His development is a reflection of the coaching staff’s approach and his willingness to sincerely try to implement what they were teaching:

There was times last year where I just didn’t understand. You don’t really fully understand what they want you to do and then they try to best explain it to you and they try their best to explain it to you a different way. If that doesn’t work, they bring somebody else in to explain it to you.

And so I think there were a couple of times where something like that happened and then it was a fourth or fifth time, you fully get an understanding — because we all play receiver, we all have had success doing certain things our way. So for somebody to say, ‘This might not be the way or I want you to do it this way,’ it’s a lot harder to do than you would expect to do it.

Even if you want to, you might go out there — once the bullets are flying — you kind of revert back to how you’ve done it in the past. So just getting the reps and being able to slowly get it done the right way and be on the same page with how we want to do it, how the quarterbacks want us to do it and how we’re supposed to do it.

This season, Aiyuk took center stage. Deebo Samuel was out for Weeks 8 and 10 and again from Weeks 15 through 17.

He capitalized on his opportunity.

Jimmie Ward, who identified Aiyuk as “having the best camp out of everybody on the team,” in August, said opportunities in Shanahan’s offense can drive confidence — or a lack thereof — and how the ball gets distributed.

“It has to do with confidence; confidence and actually Kyle getting somebody to throw him the ball,” Ward told KNBR. “Last year he was getting the ball to Deebo. Deebo had the hot hand.

“I think that’s how Kyle is, he kind of gets the ball to the hot hand. Deebo, he took off early, so when he took off like that, it was like, ‘Man, we got to keep getting Deebo the ball.’ So same thing with B.A. B.A. got the hot hand, so you got to create ways to get him the ball.”

Those opportunities only came because Aiyuk is prolific at digging out safeties and corners in the run game and after the pass.

He’s one of the league’s elite blocking receivers, especially in a scheme that’s demanding of its wideouts to secure second-level blocks.

Here’s him against Dallas safety Donovan Wilson:

And drawing a punch in frustration after sealing Micah Parsons on a rushing TD in 2021:

But his magnum opus was the block that unlocked a 75-yard TD run from Samuel against Tariq Woolen. It earned high praise from Warner.

“Receivers don’t do that,” Warner said.

Aiyuk literally did not do that until he arrived in Santa Clara.

“I never even blocked before I came here,” Aiyuk told KNBR. “This is my first time blocking. I wasn’t blocking [at Arizona State]. We’re running no-huddles, spread the ball out, throw the ball all over the field.

“So when I got here, blocking was new to me, but obviously I’ve got the body to be able to block and we all have the mindset to go do it. But it’s harder than you would think to just go out there and block. When I first got here it was about getting to block — you want to get the rock, you got to block.”

That last line is not unfamiliar throughout 49ers and Shanahan history.

When you look back at a 1985 training camp install from Bill Walsh, the first few paragraphs of these wide receiving blocking instructions read:

Attitude: The success of our outside running game and the number of runs over 10 yards depends a great deal on the execution of our perimeter blocks by the WR’s.

1. You are very important in our running game, and you must approach your job with this in mind.

2. The effectiveness of our running game will improve our play action passes. Effort and speed on running plays will help you get open when we fake the run and throw play action passes.

3. It requires concentration, self-discipline, willingness to pay the price, and personal pride geared to perfection.”

In a 2004 install from Mike Shanahan, under “offensive accountability” for wide receivers, the first line reads:


But blocking isn’t what defined Aiyuk’s year three leap. It exemplifies his commitment to scheme and an appreciation for the team goal. But he’s jumped into that near-elite echelon this season because of his stunning route running.

He’s shaken defenders with cuts and footwork that are stop-on-a-dime perfect. There are a litany of massive plays he’s had due to his ability to exploit one-on-ones. Below are just a few, many of which show a whip route that he’s just about perfected:

His 17-yard reception against DaRon Bland was nonsensically good (he also shook Trevon Diggs badly twice in last year’s playoff matchup):

While the efficacy of receiving metrics are hard to assess, FiveThirtyEight has put together a composite ranking of three key receiving elements: getting open, securing the catch, and yards after catch.

They use ESPN Analytics’ measures including NFL tracking data to assess how well receivers create space for themselves, make plays, and run after catches.

It’s imperfect. There’s not an intimate knowledge of scheme, or exactly what each receiver was asked to do on each play. It doesn’t account for coverage busts or excellent coverage. But it’s what we have, and it assesses every route run, not just targets.

Aiyuk ranks eighth overall, and eighth in open score, in the metric, and was seventh before George Kittle surpassed him in the playoffs. Above him on that list (in order) are: A.J. Brown, Justin Jefferson, Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, Diontae Johnson, Kittle and Tee Higgins.

From up-and-comer to a leader

As much as Aiyuk has accomplished on the field this season, he’s matched that with a maturity and standing off of it. He has joined the ranks of the 49ers’ obvious leaders.

He went from a promising player to a truly reliable outside receiving target, who now has a quarterback looking for some of the shot plays that Aiyuk is open on.

Shanahan took a moment to praise him after that same Raiders game in which he said he started slow.

“I just think Aiyuk’s been one of our leaders this year,” Shanahan said. “He comes to practice every day. He shows up for the game every Sunday, good or bad, you can always count on him to give all that he’s got. He’s going to show up on Monday, take the critique and come out and practice pretty much every Wednesday. He’s found a way to stay healthy throughout this year and I think he’s one of the guys that everyone knows is going to be there week in and week out.” 

That maturity is evident in the way Aiyuk carries himself off the field.

Noonan said his drive for greatness and emotional maturity were evident from the jump at Sierra College.

“He’s never satisfied,” Noonan said. “He had incredible games for us, was an All-American for us and he was never satisfied. He’s always had greatness on his mind.”

Noonan said he got to bring his son, Benny, to the Dolphins and Cardinals games this year (courtesy of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who coached with Noonan from 2004-05 at Texas A&M, Kingsville).

After Aiyuk had left, Noonan said Warner started up a chat with Benny — who, after a moment of being starstruck into silence — talked to him for 10 or so minutes.

Noonan coached Aiyuk’s cousin, Demera Cooper-Johnson, also a receiver, who just committed to Southeastern Lousiana. Noonan said some of Aiyuk’s closest friends — who were all at the games Noonan went to — were his best friends from his time at Sierra College.

“He’s a great father, a great family man and keeps a small circle around him,” Noonan said.

After the final regular season home game of the season, Aiyuk cut out of his post-game availability a bit earlier than usual.

He had dad duties to attend to.

That made for a special moment with his son, Braylon, following the game Aiyuk broke the 1,000-yard threshold for the first time in his career.

Before the game, he gave his son a pair of oversized gloves that Braylon slipped on like a two-year-old would. Aiyuk credited his partner, Rochelle — “she does so much to make it all happen” — for taking care of him. But she needed a postgame assist.

“My son just turned two, so he’s acting crazy,” Aiyuk said. “My girl, she’s with him all the time. She was like, ‘I need a second, you’re gonna have to take him,’ after Sunday’s game.

“So I was just hanging with him, putting him to sleep, just holding him after a special moment for myself on Sunday. Just getting to share that moment with him, putting him to bed, just hanging with him, just knowing that it’s all for him. So that was a moment I won’t forget.”

He shined a little light on the reality that often gets overlooked in the NFL. While, yes, players are highly paid to play a game that is watched by millions every week, they’ve still got many of the same responsibilities everyone else does.

The season, while massively beneficial from a financial standpoint, requires long hours and is physically taxing. That presents challenges, especially for a young parent with a young kid.

He reflected on the fact that he and Deebo Samuel — whose son, Tyshun (or Deebo Jr.), recently turned 1 — are both young fathers:

It’s fun. It’s super fun. We’ve both got sons. They were just hanging out a couple of weeks ago after the game. But it changes your perspective.

It’s not easy to be a partner or a dad while you also have all this going on. So you get to feel for them in a different way, feel for him with what he has going on.

And it just makes you want to go harder for him whenever he gets [the ball], going harder for any of these guys whenever they get it just because we have the same struggle. We share the same struggle and we get to go out on Sundays or Saturdays whatever the case may be and put it on the line for each other.

Aiyuk embodies the ethos of the 49ers; physical, skilled in a plethora of ways, and fully bought in to the system Shanahan operates. He’ll have a monumental task on Sunday against the likes of Darius Slay and James Bradberry II — and Marcus Epps, who he hurdled iconically for his second career touchdown.

But a challenge like this is exactly what Aiyuk wants. The best against the best in the imperious atmosphere of Philadelphia. There is no better way to prove yourself as elite than by beating elite opponents when it matters most.