Hello and welcome back to Connor’s Corner, a column where I discuss a standout performance in professional sports and that player’s journey from high school to the professional level. It’s finally that time of year again. The nearly six-month marathon of crowning one team as Super Bowl champions is underway, and with a crazy week one in the rearview mirror, one team, in particular, looked strong out of the gates: the San Francisco 49ers. This past weekend, The Niners had a 30-7 offensive explosion against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and 25-year-old wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk is responsible for that detonation.
San Francisco came into this matchup as the 2.5-point favorite against a Steelers team with high hopes. Kenny Pickett had a good preseason, leading his squad to five touchdowns on as many drives. T.J. Watt looked to resume his dominance from two seasons ago when he tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5. Allen Robinson II hoped for a return to his 2015 campaign where he had 14 scores on 400 receiving yards. Unfortunately, Steelers fans did not get their wish this opening weekend, although Watt had a good game with three sacks. Pittsburgh’s offense came out looking flat, as they went three and out and immediately punted the ball to San Francisco, who wasted no time drawing first blood. Brock Purdy played exceptionally, commanding a methodical drive that ended in him finding Aiyuk for the first score of the young season. Purdy found Aiyuk for a 23-yard game on their next offensive series that set up a 41-yard field goal. Aiyuk’s number was called on early and often, as he finished with eight catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns. While this game wasn’t close, Aiyuk’s performance is a positive sign for 49ers fans, as many in the organization believe that this is his season to take a step forward as one of the few elite route runners in today’s game.
Undoubtedly, Aiyuk has had one of the most unorthodox and unlikely journeys to becoming an NFL star. The future 49er attended Robert McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada, where he didn’t play football initially. The Nevada native waited until he was a senior in high school to lace up on the gridiron, a testament to his strong abilities as an athlete. Aiyuk only caught a few passes as a receiver – he primarily was a return man and defensive back. His freak athleticism attracted the attention of Sierra College, the same Sierra College that the likes of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the rest of the Niners spent their dynasty years attending training camp.
Aiyuk was excellent during his time at Sierra, as he accumulated over 1500 yards and 19 touchdowns in his two seasons with the Wolverines, however, that isn’t his most impressive feat. Not many can return kicks like he does. Aiyuk averaged 38 yards per kick return with two touchdowns in his 2017-2018 campaign; that same year, Aiyuk averaged 22.4 yards per punt return, returning one of them to the house. Due to his explosive ability on the field, he transferred to Arizona State, where he shined bright. Aiyuk accumulated nearly 1700 yards and 11 scores in his two seasons with the Sun Devils. Due to his athletic abilities, the San Francisco 49ers selected him with the No. 25 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, where he has grown tremendously.
Unless you are a die-hard football fan or play fantasy, chances are you’ve never heard of Aiyuk, and why should you? After all, he is the number two wide receiver on the team, behind Deebo Samuel. Not to mention, San Francisco has arguably the most talented cast in the National Football League, which is part of why he hasn’t broken out. To add insult to injury, his rookie campaign was the strange COVID-19 season. In 2021, he had a slow season due to a hamstring injury suffered in training camp. Aiyuk’s last season was the first time he garnered significant media attention, racking up 1015 yards and eight scores. Being a silent assassin is his modus operandi, as in 2021, defensive teammate Fred Warner believed that the wideout could be great – but was lacking the fire within himself. To make up for Aiyuk’s “shortcomings,” Warner would agitate him through either trash-talking or hitting him late, which led to a scuffle between the two teammates during a practice. Eventually, both players mellowed out, however, Aiyuk changed.
His former coach from Sierra, Ben Noonan, attested to this, saying, “To be honest with you — his sophomore year especially — he just was really dominating everybody that he went against…nobody really got in his face. So I didn’t see a whole lot of that honestly; this is a new side.”
Whether Warner’s methods ultimately benefited Aiyuk or not has yet to be seen, however, it appears Aiyuk has finally lit that spark, and the rest of the league is on notice.
Many experts have the 49ers making a deep playoff run this season, even as far as winning Super Bowl LVIII. If the Niners wish to hoist their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they need to be firing on all cylinders, Aiyuk included. Whether you agree with Warner’s methods or not, San Francisco needs Aiyuk to produce — and not just a spark — but a blazing fire that torches opposing defenses, leaving them in peril and ruin.