The week leading up to the most meaningful game of Ben Noonan’s coaching career, his star player turned unusually cold.
The mystery was soon solved, and it gives some insight into why the 49ers felt comfortable having Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk rated alongside Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb at the top of the class of receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The 49ers traded up to select Aiyuk with the No. 25 overall pick in the draft to, in essence, replaced departed veteran Emmanuel Sanders.
Coach Kyle Shanahan became intrigued with Aiyuk’s possibilities. He has the versatility to line up at each of the receiver positions. He is dynamic with the ball in his hands, including when he is called upon to return punts and kickoffs.
Aiyuk is soft-spoken and modest. But he can also be forceful. And one of his former coaches always will be thankful for his powers of persuasion and providing the most poignant moment of his career.
Aiyuk was a do-everything star at Sierra College in Rocklin in 2016 and ’17. He went the JC route, just a two-hour drive on Interstate 80 from his hometown of Reno, after being a non-qualifier coming out of McQueen High.
In the middle of a week during his second season at Sierra, Aiyuk would not even look Noonan in the eye. The coach and the player passed each other, and Aiyuk looked the other way. Aiyuk’s out-of-character behavior perplexed Noonan.
“I said, ‘Hey, Brandon, what is your problem?” Noonan recalled. “We had a good relationship, and he wouldn’t even talk to me.”
Aiyuk shot back that he was upset he was taken off special teams. Aiyuk was a game-changing return man, as well as being among the top community college receivers in the nation.
Noonan calmly explained his plan was to limit Aiyuk’s touches to reduce the risks for his Pac-12-bound star. But Noonan promised he would put him back to return a kick if it was a key moment late in the upcoming game.
“He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Why would you do that? I can change the game with the first kickoff return. I can change the game with the first punt return of the game,’” Noonan said.
And, just like that, Aiyuk was back on special teams.
Now, about that next game on the schedule ...
On June 2, 2017, the Noonan family was devastated by the sudden death of Pamela, Ben’s mother, from septic shock. Pamela’s grandmother lived to 97. Her mom is still going strong at 93.
“We expected my mom to live a long life,” Noonan said.
This game at Santa Rosa Junior College on Sept. 30 was a homecoming for Noonan, who played at Cardinal Newman High School and Santa Rosa JC. Noonan estimates 100 family members and friends attended the game to show support for his family.
Sierra rolled to a 52-30 victory, and Aiyuk was the star.
Although he had two punt returns for touchdowns negated due to penalties, Aiyuk still averaged 27.5 yards on four punt returns. His only kickoff return resulted in a 76-yard touchdown, and he caught six passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was the most dominant junior college performance I’d ever seen,” Noonan said.
But Aiyuk saved his best play for after the game -- with his teammates gathered around their emotional coach.
“He came up, handed me the ball and told me, ‘That was for your mom,’” Noonan said. “That’s the kind of kid he is.”
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Aiyuk would go on to make plenty of big plays two seasons later during his senior year at Arizona State, too. He has an innate desire to be a difference-maker.
“When the lights are the brightest, he runs to the middle of the field,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “He doesn’t run to the shadows. He likes competition.
“He did a great job when he was called upon to make big plays. In big moments in games, he always showed up for us.”
Arizona State was the only Pac-12 school to offer a scholarship to Aiyuk. Edwards and his staff made sure to get Aiyuk signed within minutes after the window opened on signing day. A short time later, Alabama called after a receiver recruit got away. But it was too late. Aiyuk was officially going to Tempe, Arizona.
Aiyuk had to work his way up the depth chart. N’Keal Harry was Arizona State’s top receiver in 2018. The New England Patriots selected Harry with the final pick of the first round last year.
Harry’s departure opened the door for Aiyuk to be the team’s featured wide receiver as a senior. He started all 12 games and caught 65 passes for 1,192 yards and eight touchdowns.
Aiyuk adapted to major college football after playing at Sierra College in an offense patterned after Mike Leach’s air-raid attack.
“Coming from junior college, there is a lot of 1-on-1 football,” Aiyuk said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “You don’t really have to identify coverages. You don’t really have to do much. You just have to beat the guy in front of you.
“When I first got to Arizona State, that was a little bit different for me, having to identify stuff at the snap. That was probably my biggest area of improvement.”
The first time Noonan met Aiyuk and his father was after a spring practice. They watched the workout, then spoke with the coach afterward.
Noonan’s initial reaction: “Holy cow, this kid doesn’t talk. He was real quiet and humble.”
But Aiyuk also exhibited the kind of confidence that would fuel him in big moments. Noonan says Aikyuk as a “one-time learner.” He never had to create a wristband as a reference for his assignments. Aiyuk was quick to execute adjustments and he never repeated mistakes.
“Here’s why I think he’s going to have a long and successful NFL career,” Noonan said. “He, by no means, thinks he’s arrived.
“He has always been a grinder. That’s his personality. He didn’t start for me for the first four games of his freshman year. Then, he’s a Pac-12 guy and a first-round draft pick. He’s going to work his butt off. He’s going to fit right in with that culture.”
Said Edwards, “Adapting to a locker room is critical at the pro level. The last thing a coach wants to worry about is locker room chemistry.”
Aiyuk’s work ethic and attitude should make him a good fit for the 49ers’ locker room, Edwards said.
Aiyuk is likely to take full advantage of teammate Deebo Samuel’s offer to provide as much assistance as possible during the unprecedented virtual offseason program due to the coronavirus pandemic. There will be no shortcuts for Aiyuk and the entire rookie class. General manager John Lynch and Shanahan identified a player who is committed to learn quickly and maximize his talents.
“I think he's capable of doing everything from an athletic standpoint,” Shanahan said. “And I think he has the mentality from a toughness standpoint in terms of the contact of the game and also in terms of this guy is just not happy with today.
“This guy wants to be great. I want someone like that. And I think he has the tools to be great.”