SANTA CLARA – Lorenzo Jerome has more in common with the man responsible for giving him his shot to play in the NFL than he knew.
Early in training camp, 49ers general manager John Lynch walked up to Jerome on the practice field to let him know he identified with the undrafted rookie from St. Francis University.
“He came by and (said), ‘You know, I played safety as well,’” Jerome said. “He talks to me and says, ‘I was a hard-hitter.’”
Jerome has another thing in common with Lynch, a finalist this year for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They both entered college at quarterback before transitioning to the defensive backfield.
Jerome’s knowledge of offense helped him make a smooth transition to the other side of the ball, said St. Francis coach Chris Villarrial, who played 11 NFL seasons as an offensive guard.
“We’d talked to him and made the switch,” Villarrial said. “He understood coverages. Being a quarterback, he understood where guys were going to be. There are so many things he was ahead of the curve with when he came here.”
Jerome did a little bit of everything at St. Francis. He recorded 18 interceptions in his four-year career. He also scored four touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns. He caught a 48-yard touchdown pass as a senior, and completed two passes in his final two seasons for 86 yards.
Other times, Villarrial would turn to Jerome to supply the Red Flash with exactly what was needed at any give time.
“I’d say to him, ‘Zo, we need a turnover right now,” Villarrial said. “He looked at me and winked, ‘Don’t worry, coach. We got this.’”
And, more often than not, he delivered, including a pivotal victory over Duquesne last season that led to St. Francis earning the top spot in the Northeast Conference and a trip to the FCS Playoffs.
“As he matured, you could tell football was important to him,” Villarrial said. “His motto was, ‘Whatever I can do help the team.’ He loved being challenged. The more challenges we put in front of him, the more he rose up.”
St. Francis has not had a player in the NFL since 1952. Jerome was a strong candidate to get drafted but, while still recovering from an MCL injury in his left knee, he ran 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. It was the slowest time among all defensive backs invited to the showcase.
But Jerome's ascension up the 49ers' depth chart at the beginning of training camp was lightning fast. He started the first two exhibition games after injuries to safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. Villarrial said Jerome’s passion for the sport and his willingness to improve gave him an idea that Jerome could break through.
“He didn’t like being beat,” Villarrial said. “If he did get beat, he’d be the first one in the film room asking the coaches why this happened. He was always rallying the troops. He was a student of the game. He’d study the game. You saw so many things in him. He never got flustered that he could not respond back.”
Sometimes, Jerome’s eagnerness gets the best of him. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Jerome was out of position at times in last Saturday’s game against the Denver Broncos.
“I thought they caught him a few times out of position on a few play-action looks because he’s been so aggressive and he’s going to have to learn from those because he got out of position a couple of times but they never made him pay for it going outside,” Shanahan said. “I’ve been pleased with Lorenzo. He moves around fast, he’s really eager, the game’s not too big for him, he’s made plays wherever he’s been and he’s continued to do that for us and I hope he continues to get better.”
Villarrial laughed when Shanahan’s words were read to him.
“It’s almost a Troy Polamalu type thing,” Villarrial said. “Sometimes you have to live with it. You got to live and die with some of the moves. As an NFL guy, if you’re going to jump something, you better make sure it’s going to happen, or it’s a touchdown. It’s something he knows he’s going to have to work on and control. It’s also what makes him good. He has to figure out at this level, that these quarterbacks look off.”
As well as Jerome has played in the 49ers’ defensive backfield, he has not been as impressive in the one area that is most important for his bid to be a contributor as a rookie during the regular season.
Jerome said he knows he must sharpen his play on special teams in order to solidify his spot on the team and make it through the cuts next week from 90 to the regular-season limit of 53. He remained after practice this week for some one-on-one instruction from assistant special teams coach Stan Kwan.
“I think about it all the time,” Jerome said. “I’m stressing because I was a big disappointment to the coaches on special teams. So, right now, I just have to bust my butt on special teams.”