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Aiyuk’s position coach: His ceiling is so high, he has no idea. He’s just starting to reach his potential

Arizona State’s wide receiver coach helped break down the 49ers first-round pick

USC v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We’ve seen San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan tell us why he was so high on Brandon Aiyuk. On Tuesday, I spoke to Arizona State’s wide receiver coach Charlie Fisher, who has been coaching college football since 1982, so Fisher been around the block and seen his fair share of athletes. Fisher couldn’t be any more sure of Aiyuk being a successful receiver in the NFL. Aiyuk’s landing spot also couldn’t have been any better, in Fisher’s mind.

Coach Fisher said he told every scout that came through Arizona State that Aiyuk was the real deal, and raved about his work ethic. “Your best ability is your availability, and Brandon didn’t miss a practice for us in two years. When you see the leader of your team out there every day working his butt off like Brandon, that rubs off on the rest of the players.” The 49ers are getting a receiver that leads by example, and that’s with hard work. By Fisher’s comments, Aiyuk will fit right in.

The quote, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” is fitting in some cases, but not in this instance. Coach Fisher was amazed at how much progress Aiyuk made in his two years with Arizona State. The first year on campus, Aiyuk showed up in July, so he missed all of spring ball and summer practice. It wasn’t until the second half of the season and the bowl game during his junior season when coaches really started to notice Aiyuk’s game take off. Fisher said, “Brandon’s route running has come so far in two years. His ceiling is so high, he has no idea, but with the way he works, he can be as good as he wants. He’s just starting to reach his potential.”

For those that aren’t old enough to remember North Carolina State’s receiver in the 90s Torry Holt, he was one of the most polished wideouts to come out of college in the last 25 years. Fisher said, “Holt is the best wideout he’s ever coached, but Aiyuk is the closest wide receiver he’s had to Holt.” Wow. There is high praise, and then there’s comparing putting a rookie in the same breath as a player as dominant as a 7-time Pro Bowler. This wasn’t just lip service, though. Fisher cited several examples as to why he’s confident Aiyuk will be a star in the NFL.

The plays

There has been a lot of talk about Aiyuk’s speed. Fisher said Aiyuk has “competitive speed,” meaning, he’s as fast as he needs to be. “You won’t ever see anyone catch him. Go watch the closing catch he had against Oregon. He runs by a cornerback, and the safety had the angle on him toward the end, but Brandon still outran him. You see that all the time.”

How fitting is it that Fisher referenced a 3rd & 16 play in the fourth quarter when his team was down? Hello, Rams. As you can see from the catch, and John Lynch has noted this, Aiyuk’s wingspan allows him to get to passes most receivers his size cannot. There was another play against Michigan State where Aiyuk goes outside of his frame to catch a curl route above his head:

Lynch said that Aiyuk would get to overthrows because of his long reach.

Aiyuk’s value on special teams has flown under the radar. Fisher said you’d be foolish not to let Aiyuk return punts because he’s going to pick up at least two first downs a game for you.

The 49ers weren’t bad at returning punts and kicks in 2019. San Francisco was ninth in DVOA on punt returns and 12th on kick returns. That doesn’t mean the team won’t look to improve. It’ll be difficult for Richie James to make the team, which means the 49ers will need new returners. Dante Pettis? Trent Taylor? Aiyuk has a strong argument. His punt return against Oregon State is an excellent example of “competitive speed” Fisher referenced. The balance Aiyuk showed as a kick returner will make it tough for him not to win the job:

It’s not that James has been bad, it’s that Aiyuk can be better. If the 49ers were a complacent team, they wouldn’t have traded for Trent Williams or Emmanuel Sanders. The goal is always to get better.

Speaking of USC, I did my best to challenge Fisher, as Aiyuk isn’t a perfect prospect. My argument was Aiyuk doesn’t have a plan to beat press coverage. You can tell he didn’t face press coverage a lot because Aiyuk doesn’t know how to beat it consistently. For a player that has inspector gadget arms, he doesn’t use them to his advantage at the line of scrimmage, and that allows defensive backs to get their hands on him. Fisher said, “he may have run a 4.5, but he has 4.3 feet. He’s electric, and that will allow him to get open. He’ll need to work on his patience and become more polished, but he’ll get better with more reps. Turn on the USC touchdown to get an example of his feet.”

Fisher had an example of every rebuttal I had. We talked about the comparisons and contrasts between Ayiuk and Deebo Samuel stylistically. Fisher said Samuel was his favorite receiver in the draft last year, and his toughness and mentality remind him of a lot of Aiyuk. He admitted that Deebo is a bit stronger, but said both of them have the same calling card that will help them be stars in the NFL, “their run after catch ability is second to none.” Arizona State would throw Aiyuk screen passes early in games, and even though the defense knew it was coming, they still couldn’t stop it. These were the two plays he referenced, both happening early in the first quarter of each game:

I’ve shown seven plays, and there hasn’t been one time where a defender tackled Aiyuk on the first attempt.

Fisher said you couldn’t find a better landing spot than San Francisco for Brandon because of his run after catch ability, and he’s so good on in-breaking routes, specifically slants. Aiyuk has spacial awareness that will allow him to get open in zone coverage. We went through a few plays where Aiyuk was wide open, but because the quarterback couldn’t get him the ball, the stat sheet didn’t reward him. After this call, the hyperbole made me want to place money on Aiyuk for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Fisher was proud of Aiyuk for the work he’s put in the past two seasons. I asked him when he first knew Aiyuk was special. “In one of the first few practices, we threw him a short pass; then he made a couple of guys miss and outran the rest of the defense. I looked over our OC and said, ‘baller alert,’ and he hasn’t disappointed us since.”