49ers rookie Ji’Ayir Brown ‘ready for his moment’ in Hufanga’s absence

Nov 21, 2023, 9:00 AM | Updated: 10:14 am

Ji'Ayir Brown #27 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after an interception during the fourth quarter...

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have faced a plethora of adversity over the last 24 months, with rookies and first-year starters stepping up on short notice. They’ll be hoping that trend can continue with Ji’Ayir Brown, a man molded in the biggest moments of football.

The 49ers rookie safety had his first meaningful snaps of his NFL career in Week 11, replacing All-Pro Talanoa Hufanga due to injury. Unfortunately, they’ll need him to fill in for the remainder of the year, with an MRI revealing a torn ACL for Hufanga.

Brown’s biggest test in the NFL came with a steep learning curve, allowing a 40-yard completion to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Rakim Jarrett up the middle. But like all trials through combats, he eventually learned from his mistakes.

The Penn State alum finished Sunday’s contest with four combined tackles, three pass breakups, and his first interception in the NFL. Even more impressive, that all came in the fourth quarter with the 49ers backed up on their own goal-line.

On one play, Brown was seen jarring the ball loose with a well-timed hit on tight end Cade Otton to save a touchdown. On the next play, he broke up a would-be score to WR Mike Evans. The next series: He caught the game-sealing pick.

The rookie was growing in spades in a matter of minutes.

But like they say, pressure makes diamonds, and Ji’Ayir Brown seems up to the task so far.

“I thought he did a hell of a job,” coach Kyle Shanahan said about Brown’s performance Monday. “I mean to lose a player like Huf in the game and for him to come in and step it up big, make two huge plays. The pick was huge and then the fourth down, where you got an all-out blitz, and they just throw it up. Sometimes it’s your biggest fear when they throw it up…When it’s underthrown, it’s so hard not to get a [pass interference call] and for him to not PI the guy and to get back in from what I saw, it looked like he knocked it down. That was a hell of a play.”

His progression on the field doesn’t come as a surprise to many in the organization though, watching him grow each week on the scout team at practice. This past week, Brown impersonated Buccaneers safety Antonie Winfield Jr. for the 49ers and quarterback Brock Purdy.

Putting the rookie in that role allows two things to occur: 1. The 49ers offense gets some needed reps against a simulated defense of their upcoming opponents. 2. Ji’Ayir Brown gets more experience going against the first team.

And while not every play ended with a success story for the rookie, at least according to George Kittle. All 49ers plays have seen Brown grow in spades as the weeks and months have gone on, maintaining the mindset of being ready for the moment.

“He’s been working his tail off. He’s been on the scout team against the offense and making plays,” linebacker Fred Warner said about Brown Sunday. “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 going through [a] red shirt year [in the NFL]. You never know when your opportunity is going to come. He was obviously fully ready when his time came.”

The red-shirt philosophy wasn’t necessarily the hope when the 49ers selected him in the third round back in April. But with two high-quality starters in Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson already in place, both the rookie and the organization were happy with him taking the year one step at a time.

The philosophy of Ji’Ayir Brown

The former collegiate captain had been a sponge since joining the Red & Gold, always in the eye of his teammates and coaches to get better. He understood his role on the team and didn’t hesitate to accept it, showing the maturity that intrigued Kyle Shanahan in the first place.

“That’s one of the reasons we went for him [in the draft], we knew we needed some depth there. The cool thing about him is, I think you heard it from guys yesterday, but the way he’s been practicing here every week like he knew this moment would come. He’s been locked in and it’s extremely impressive for a rookie and I think that’s why he was ready for his moment last night and made some big plays and helped us win,” the coach said.

Mentality can only take you so far in the NFL, it has to be accompanied by talent. Thankfully for the 49ers, they got the pick right in Brown, seeing him earn more and more reps at practice over the last month or so.

“Oh yeah, big time. I notice him all the time because he goes against the offensive scout team all the time. He’s one of the guys who consistently gets better each week,” Shanahan added. “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 has been preparing for the NFL his whole life though, battling through adversity to get to this moment. Before Penn State, he was a JUCO product at Lackawanna College, becoming the Northeast JC Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. Then, he earned his spot with the Nittany Lions, becoming a defensive captain for one of the most prestigious programs in all of college football. And then, he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors two seasons in a row to close out his collegiate career.

Success doesn’t happen by accident, especially for people like Ji’Ayir Brown. His determination to make his passion his livelihood made him who he is today, keeping that drive to overachieve with him each week in the NFL.

“The biggest thing you can ask for is for a young guy to be ready,” the rookie said postgame. “Every week, I’ve been preparing for that day. I never knew when that day was going to come, but I was just preparing consistently every day. We were working hard, meeting for extra time with the coach. And, when my number was called today, I was fortunate enough to go out there and execute the job.”

Brown also understands his place in the big house of the NFL, willing to pay his dues to get the respect of others.

The safety has a nickname he’s gone by since childhood, “Tig”, named after the Winnie the Pooh character Tigger to describe his outgoing personality. But when he entered the NFL, he gave the nickname up, wanting to earn the right to be called that by his teammates.

Most rookies don’t do that, wanting to keep their individualist character traits from Day 1. Especially in the social media era, you have to have your own moniker to stand out as an athlete. But that stuff didn’t matter to Ji’Ayir, only focused on earning his place with the 49ers. And that starts with learning from some of the best in business around him each day, specifically Hufanga and Gipson.

“Every step of the way. I’ve been here since day one with those guys, just watching them, watching how they prepare, watching how they watch film. The DB Coach [Daniel Bullocks], he’s a hell of a guy. All of them, the whole secondary, they’ve just been great role models, great leaders for me, helping me through this transition to the NFL. I’m glad I could go out there and help them today,” Brown stated.

Football is more than a game for the rookie; It’s a way of life.

The New Jersey native is a charismatic, free-flowing personality, infectious in the rest of the 49ers locker room. He’s routinely seen getting basketball shots up on the team’s hoop in between workouts and practice, making jokes with the rest of the DBs and wide receivers. Brown has become a part of the starting unit’s cohort, without even playing a snap with them in an actual game (until Week 11).

And to think where he was four years ago, it’s astonishing the transformation he’s made on the football field.

As he reflected on his pinch-hitting effort in Week 11, Brown tried to stay stoic with the media swarming him, but a smile kept creeping back on his face. And why shouldn’t it? After all, he’s playing football with the San Francisco 49ers, a team primed for a Super Bowl berth if all the cards fall correctly.

And for that, the rookie is forever grateful, soaking in the moment as he begins this first chapter of his NFL career.

“Always. Especially me, I’m always enjoying it,” Ji’Ayir Brown said with his usual beaming smile. “Out there with [DL] Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, [DL] Chase Young, all these great guys. How can you not enjoy it? You’re living the dream. I’m literally walking in my dream. So I’m enjoying every moment, every little detail. It’s just been amazing for me.”

Upcoming San Francisco 49ers Schedule

  • Thursday, Nov. 23rd @ Seattle Seahawks – 5:20 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 3rd @ Philadelphia Eagles – 1:25 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 10th vs. Seattle Seahawks – 1:05 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 17th @ Arizona Cardinals – 1:05 p.m. PST
  • Monday, Dec. 25th vs. Baltimore Ravens – 5:15 p.m. PST

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