As the dust settled on the San Francisco’s bye-clinching win in Seattle, two of the game’s most impactful players for the 49ers were rookie draft picks that were validating general manager John Lynch’s reasons for selecting them in April.
When Kyle Shanahan needed the team’s most valuable assets to deliver on the regular season’s biggest stage, pass rusher Nick Bosa brought 11 pressures — which was a season-high — and six tackles, including numerous plays to limit Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson from tearing the 49ers’ defense apart.
On the other side of the ball, second-round pick Deebo Samuel finished with his signature moment of the season — adding five catches, 102 yards through the air and a touchdown on the ground.
With San Francisco’s hopes of a Super Bowl run hanging in the balance at Century Link Field, the superstars-in-the-making declared their arrival in front of a Sunday Night Football national audience, staking their claim as some of the best rookies in the NFL.
As Shanahan’s group prepares for their first playoff game since the Jim Harbaugh era, the coaches should have no concern about their rookie playmakers, as they have been preparing for this very moment since their high school days.
The perfect nickname
Known as Tyshun growing up, Samuel earned the nickname ‘Deebo’ for being a “bully in the daycare as a child” — a trait which translated beautifully onto the football field, added his Chapman High School football coach Mark Hodges. Deebo was the name of the neighborhood bully in the cult movie ‘Friday,’ and Samuel’s father adopted that nickname for his son.
Never has a nickname been so meaningful to a player’s on-field persona. After the catch, Samuel turns into a bowling ball, forcing 25 missed tackles, joining four other non-running backs in the past three years to break at least 20 tackles.
Even dating back to his high school days, Samuel was not one to ever shy away from the competition. Hodges added that when he first laid eyes on Samuel in the summer, the former South Carolina receiver was absolutely dominating the seven-on-seven drills and stood out as a man amongst boys.
That immediately translated onto the field in his final two years at Chapman High, where Samuel carried his team into the playoffs. Hodges described to me over the phone that in a game where his team was not favored to win, Samuel was the most unstoppable force on the field — where he made catch after catch to push his team over the edge. In the following week, Hodges said that they changed up the offensive game-plan, letting Samuel carry the ball for over 25 times for nearly 300 yards.
It did not matter how Hodges and his offensive staff were going to find a way to put the ball in their best players’ hands and let him carry the group to a championship. Hodges expressed that his staff used playing cards, and each card let Samuel know where to line up pre-snap — an Ace being quarterback, so on so forth.
That ability and skill have directly translated to Shanahan’s offense in the NFL. Samuel has been explosive both as a pass-catcher and a runner, adding 802 yards through the air and over 150 on the ground.
But it was not only his play on the field that had Hodges loving Samuel; it was the leadership and character that he brought to the program. The Chapman High football coach detailed that Samuel brought lots of swagger to the practice field and that positive energy spread through the locker room and onto the field on game days.
When I have seen Samuel pregame at Levi’s Stadium, he’s always keeping a smile on his face and busting a dance move making sure that he’s in the right headspace to prepare for the ensuing battle — something he’s done since his early teens, per Hodges.
Off the field, Samuel was also a caring human being, known as “Bo Frand” to Hodges’ daughter and only one of four people who has specially granted access to the coach’s special candy drawer, per Hodges. The former Gamecock that crushes it on the field is a light-hearted personality off of it, and that’s starting to win 49ers’ fans over as the season has gone on.
Hodges also talked to me about Samuel’s route-running ability, adding that his offensive coordinator has been fluctuating since his time in high school. At South Carolina, he learned Steve Spurrier’s offense and then Will Muschamp’s offense, then immediately pivoting to the NFL, where he had to pick up Shanahan’s complex schemes.
Samuel’s former coach added that receivers need to be extremely cerebral, “learning motions, pre-snap shifts, releases and then the routes.” He’s seen a development as the 49ers’ season has gone on and adds that if Samuel can stay with Shanahan — the sky is the limit.
Bosa has been this good for years
On the other side of the ball, Bosa’s known for his fierce competitiveness and relentless pursuit of opposing quarterbacks, but his St. Thomas Aquinas high school coach, Roger Harriott, adds that “he’s always gone about his business in a humble and modest manner.”
After the loss to the Falcons, the locker room mood was tense and one of anger, fueled by Bosa’s post-game comments where he took immediate responsibility, adding that he didn’t play well enough and wasn’t winning on his pass rushes. That level of self-awareness and leadership from a rookie was profound, and something I had not seen before.
Yet Harriott was not surprised one bit, claiming that even in high school, Bosa’s leadership has always been “predicated on taking ownership of the circumstances and maintaining the emotional capacity to get motivated when facing adversity.”
Well, adversity struck this 49ers’ defensive line group, losing numerous players from Dee Ford to D.J. Jones, and Bosa was a calming presence, clocking in every week with numerous pressures and game-changing plays.
His teammates and coaches didn’t only love Bosa, Harriott claimed that the former Ohio State player’s “reputation was among LEGENDARY status — not only as a player but also as a person.” That stature has certainly carried forward with the 49ers, as one of the most popular jerseys on game day is the red and gold “97” that Bosa currently sports.
On the field, Bosa’s quick first-step as a pass rusher was evident when he was a toddler, adds Harriott — due to exceptional coaching in his adolescence with a hint of innate ability (okay, it was a little more than just a hint).
Harriott also described to me that one of Bosa’s best traits was his mood — it was always even-keeled, being straight-faced from pregame all the way through the final buzzer. He “worked himself into a zone and remained in that mental space till the last whistle.”
Both of these rookies have been home-run picks by third-year general manager John Lynch. When the 49ers bottomed out last season after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury — San Francisco had to strike gold with their draft picks to hide a hideous season.
And oh did they hit the jackpot with their first two selections, a likely Defensive Rookie of the Year and an offensive playmaker that’s become a chess piece in Shanahan’s complex offense.
As they wait to make their playoff debut on Saturday, their former high school coaches are supremely confident that their regular-season dominance will translate flawlessly onto the game’s biggest stages.