Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

‘Some words’ with Kyle Shanahan, a fresh approach, and overcoming trust issues led to improvement for 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk

Nov 4, 2021 at 5:11 PM--

What's been the key to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk's recent rebound from his unexpectedly slow start to the 2021 season? Chalk it up to some pointed words with his head coach, a change in his mental approach to the game, and an improved level of trust in those around him.

Aiyuk was expected by many to have a breakout season in 2021 after catching 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie after the 49ers selected him in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft. But his role in the offense was unexpectedly diminished at the start of the season, as he caught just one pass on two targets over his first two games. Plenty of mystery surrounded Aiyuk's slow start, with not much being said about it publicly while few (if any) outside of the organization seemed to know much about exactly what was going on.

Things have gotten better for Aiyuk since then, with his most recent game being proof that he's back on track. Aiyuk caught four passes for a season-high 45 yards in a win over the Chicago Bears on October 31, leading to head coach Kyle Shanahan praising his young receiver's all-around performance. And along the way, more has been revealed about why Aiyuk may not have had the type of role that was expected of him early in the season.

On Thursday, a clearer picture of Aiyuk's situation took shape, as Aiyuk himself spoke to reporters about where he was early in the season as opposed to now, and what caused him to move in the positive direction he's been showing in recent weeks. Aiyuk pointed at the time around the 49ers' bye week on October 17 as a turning point, saying he used that time to implement a new approach in which he takes every new week as a fresh start.

"Kind of like after the bye week, just talking with coaches, sitting and assessing where we were at, I kind of just took that as after the bye week that was the start season," Aiyuk said. "That was Week 1, then kind of just taking that approach every single week. This week I came into the week like this is the first week of the season, this is the first week of practice. Taking that approach, reasserting yourself every single week, and showing what you want to do on Sunday throughout the week."

Aiyuk's turnaround may have started before the bye week, which is when he said he had a discussion with head coach Kyle Shanahan. Aiyuk said he had a number of teammates giving him pointers as well, most notably fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but he made it clear that some frank conversation was had between himself and Shanahan.

"Definitely a lot of players. Juice, he's my locker mate so I talk to him a lot. But also, me and Kyle had some words," Aiyuk said. "We had some words, (so) definitely Kyle too."

49ers fans will have to remain in the dark about exactly what those words were, because Aiyuk wasn't about to elaborate.

"Some words," Aiyuk said. "Some words."

Aiyuk said he didn't take whatever Shanahan had to say personally but added that there were some trust issues he had to get past when it came to accepting the advice of others in the organization.

"No, not at all," Aiyuk said. "I think for me it was kind of just like, people joke around all the time that I have trust issues or what not. It's kind of just like getting over the fact that everybody in this building wants the best for you. They're trying to help you out whenever they're talking to you and telling you stuff. Every time everybody's given me some good information and I've used that information we've gotten what we wanted from it. So just trusting everybody, trusting them, trusting what they're saying, believing what they're saying, and going out on the field and doing it."

Fortunately, it sounds like the issues Aiyuk was dealing with at one point are now in the rear view mirror.

"Had," Aiyuk said, when asked if he has a problem with trust. "You could say that. Had. In life, period, in general."

49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel spoke about Aiyuk on Thursday as well, making some comments that offer more specifics into the changes Aiyuk has made in recent weeks.

"That's an interesting question for a receiver in particular because it's layered," McDaniel said when asked what it means for a wide receiver to have a good week of practice, which is what Shanahan has said recently about Aiyuk. "It's not 'Ok, yeah, he caught ten balls today.' Your job is to catch balls. It's how you go about everything. And it takes a while for rookies to really understand, 'Why are we irritated at this play where I just caught a six-yard hitch? I was open.' We're looking through the lens of like, 'Okay, how is 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, their approach, the urgency. So 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 that, 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 past couple of weeks, he's looked like the player 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 who's finally understanding 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. It's that gray, but it's that obvious to the whole offense. That's why you keep hearing it from every facet, whether it's a player, coach, or whatever. You can feel that. It's hard to say exactly what it is. It's the entirety. It's the sum of the parts and just how he goes about his day-to-day practice -- every assignment, blocking, route, catch, all of it."

Tight end George Kittle also spoke about Aiyuk and offered some insight on how he's improved from the start of the season.

"I just think the difficult thing for young guys is just realizing that every single practice, whether it's training camp or in season, it matters," Kittle said. "Your body's going to feel like absolute crap, but you still have to take advantage of those practices, whether it's mental reps, whether it's the physical reps and just learning the right way to do it. Our offense is if you run the route like this, good things are going to happen. Just able to pick up on that, running the exact way you're supposed to run them at the right speed, at the right angle, at the right depth, then reacting on top of that, that's what you need to be able to practice to be able to figure those things out, to be able to get better. I think it just takes young guys a while to realize that. I think Aiyuk's done a great job. I'm not saying that was Aiyuk -- I just think young guys in general -- but I think Aiyuk has done a better job of being deliberate every single rep that he gets, whether it's a run play he's on the back side of, crossing the field to get the back side safety, or it's a pass play that's coming to him to make sure he gets his depth. That's one thing we all try to get better at every single day but young guys need to emphasize a little bit more."

On Wednesday, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said during a radio appearance on 95.7 The Fan that Aiyuk was on an "upward trajectory" and was "finding his way" after his slow start. Aiyuk agreed with that assessment Thursday, while adding some comments that echoed what Kittle said about taking advantage of every practice opportunity.

"You could say that," Aiyuk said. "I think it's more of just a thing of stacking. Stacking, not taking it personal, every rep, every play, every day of practice type of thing... You could kind of say that, but it's kind of a thing where you don't really keep track of it. It kind of just gets away. But like I said, taking advantage of every single play, starting fresh, one play's gone, the next one comes, and treating every single play like the first play."

Maybe the past couple of weeks will prove to be a turning point for Aiyuk's NFL career as well as his 2021 season. He seems to be figuring out the things the 49ers wanted him to figure out, and if he can continue to carry it all over to gamedays, perhaps fans will start to see him play at the level he was expected to before the season began. That would be terrific news for the 49ers, considering how much potential Aiyuk showed as a rookie.

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