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49ers express confidence in rookie Ji’Ayir Brown after standout performance

Nov 19, 2023 at 6:22 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers have expressed considerable confidence in rookie safety Ji'Ayir Brown, whose opportunity to showcase his NFL readiness seems to have arrived. Despite being a third-round draft pick in April, Brown has seen limited action, with just 30 defensive snaps under his belt before the Week 11 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Most of his playing time has come on special teams.

That changed when Brown stepped in for an injured Talanoa Hufanga in the third quarter. The 49ers fear the worst for their All-Pro safety, believing Hufanga suffered an ACL injury. They will learn more on Monday. It sounds like Brown will pair up with Tashaun Gipson for the remainder of the season.

"My heart goes out to Huf," linebacker Fred Warner said after the game. "Not exactly sure what's going on there, but obviously they're fearing the worst for him right now. And obviously, my heart and prayers go out to Huf. Man, that's sickening news."

Things didn't start great for Brown, who quickly surrendered a 41-yard catch that led to a one-yard touchdown run by Buccaneers running back Rachaad White. However, he quickly redeemed himself.

Brown broke up a touchdown pass to Mike Evans with 6:39 remaining in the game and then, later in the game, intercepted a Baker Mayfield pass in the end zone.

"You know, I'm used to getting interceptions," Brown said after the game. "It was a tipped pass. It was falling how every tipped pass falls, and just locked my eyes in on it, and then dove out for it and got it."

The 49ers coaching staff has been impressed with Brown's development throughout the season. He hasn't played much because the team is equally impressed with the Hufanga-Gipson duo it deploys on a weekly basis.

When asked about Brown's performance on Sunday, head coach Kyle Shanahan said, "I thought he did a hell of a job. To lose a player like Huf in the game, and for him to come in and step it up big, make two huge plays—I mean, the pick was huge, and then the fourth down, where you got an all-out blitz, and they just throw it up."

Shanahan admits that it's tough not to get called for pass interference when the football is thrown into the air in those situations. Brown played disciplined football and kept the ball out of Evans' hands.

"That was a hell of a play," Shanahan added.

This past week, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said he's noticed significant progress in Brown during practices.

Shanahan has seen the same from the first-year safety, saying, "I noticed him all the time because, one, he goes against the offensive scout team all the time, and he's one of the guys who consistently gets better each week on all the card looks. We always split the reps with the ones and the twos anyways when the defense goes, and he's really taken off here in this last month and was ready for his opportunity. You never know when it's going to come, and he's been preparing the right way."

Brown emulated Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield on the scout-team defense this week, earning praise from quarterback Brock Purdy.

"Yeah, Ji'Ayir, all the weeks so far, he's given us a great look with playing safety, and then obviously, with Winfield being one of their best defenders on defense, Ji'Ayir did a great job with just all the looks," Purdy said after the game. "They did a bunch of stuff with Winfield, and Ji'Ayir, even at practice, was a ball hawk. He has great instincts and was just all over, just like Winfield. He gave us a great look.

"And then for him to go in the game and be ready to play for our defense and what we ask of our safeties, he did a great job. So we're all pumped for him and really happy for him and going to see more of him, so we're excited."

Purdy shared a story from this past summer. Brown approached the quarterback and immediately made a strong impression.

"I could tell how mature he was," Purdy shared. "Sometimes with rookies and stuff, they're excited to be there and can be a little bit all over the place and whatnot. But he was very mature. I could tell this guy handles his business, and he's going to have a great career. So to see him doing his thing now was great."

While Warner is heartbroken for Hufanga, he is proud of Brown for stepping into a tough situation and performing at a high level.

"Even though we were up in the game, to be down there in the red zone and make the plays that he made to help us get out of there speaks to the way that he's worked and been ready for his opportunity," Warner said. "... He's been working his tail off. He's been obviously on the scout team against the offense and making plays. I see him flashing, doing his thing, taking it serious.

"I have side conversations with him, letting him know he needs to make sure that he's using these reps to his advantage to get better, as a player. You're never just going through some sort of red-shirt year. You never know when your opportunity is going to come. So he was obviously fully ready when his time came."

Tight end George Kittle joked that he regularly beats Brown in practice, saying, "I do cook him weekly, yes."

However, Kittle went on to praise Brown's development as a player, sharing what stood out to him the most about the rookie safety.

"When you're a rookie, you're kind of just trying to figure it out because the NFL is significantly different than college ball, and everyone on the field can score a touchdown, especially in this offense," Kittle said. "So, yes, just seeing his improvement since he first got here, he's a guy that listens.

"Actually, one of my favorite things is back in OTAs, me and Fred had an opportunity to talk to the rookies right before we all leave, before training camp, the 40 days away. And one of the things I always talk about is when you're a rookie, just be a sponge. Everything, just look at what vets do, guys who are successful, look at what they do, and also look at what people do not [do] very well. And I think Ji'Ayir is a guy who listened to that, absorbed a bunch of information.

"He does the things that really good ball players do, whether it's taking care of your body, the mental side of it, the extra film, talking to your coaches about stuff, and then taking every day seriously in practice to try to get better. And so that's why he was set up for his opportunity today, which I'm very proud of him."

Brown always prepared as if he were going to play, knowing that he could be called upon at any moment.

"The biggest thing you can ask for is for a young guy to be ready, and every week, I've been just preparing for that day," Brown said. "Never knew when that day was going to come, but just preparing every day consistently, working hard, meeting extra time with the coach, and when my number was called today, I was fortunate enough to go out there and execute the job."

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