How 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk was recruited by Alabama to play cornerback

Jessica Kleinschmidt
NBC Sports BayArea

49ers freshly-minted first-round draft pick Brandon Aiyuk can do it all. Such has been the case since his days at McQueen High School in Reno, Nev.

Despite starring at Arizona State, the wide receiver had a chance to be a standout star at the most prestigious college football program in the nation: The University of Alabama.

Aiyuk's high school coach Jim Snelling said Alabama gave him a call inquiring about the freakishly athletic Aiyuk -- to play a different position.

Snelling's phone rang and on the other end was a friend who, at the time, was at Alabama. He was curious if Aiyuk was capable of being a cornerback. 

"He said, 'Do you think Brandon can play corner in the SEC?' I said 'I don't know if he can -- I don't know if he runs well enough,'" Snelling told NBC Sports Bay Area. 

Aiyuk was back in the Reno area to work out in the next couple of days. That's when Snelling approached him and said he had a call from the SEC school. 

Aiyuk wasn't too sure about it.  

"He kind of said 'Aww man,'" Snelling explained.

"Brandon was dead set that he wanted to play receiver in college and in fact, my brother who's a head coach at Butte College -- we were talking to them about Brandon playing there, but they were looking at him as a corner," Snelling said. "Brandon didn't want to play corner."

Either way, Snelling timed Aiyuk's 40-yard-dash.

He ran it twice: 4.46 and 4.48. Snelling immediately called his Alabama guy back.

"I told him he can definitely play corner in the SEC because he's so athletic, and so long -- and he highpoints the ball, and he runs well enough."

Aiyuk checked all the boxes.

If you can't run that well, you can't play cornerback well in the SEC -- especially with all of those fast wide receivers roaming the country's most prolific football conference.

Imagine that. 

That quiet confidence that has been synonymous with him across each level, as chronicled by NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco last week, could have had him teaming up with Nick Saban. Saban would have been honored to have him -- anyone would have. That would have been a strong and fast squad, with other 2020 first-round receivers Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy all being members of the Crimson Tide at the same time. 

But despite Alabama wooing him, he wanted to play receiver.

Snelling admitted playing with Coach Herm Edwards at ASU, after a stint at Sierra Junior College, was the best fit for Aiyuk. He could have gone anywhere and done anything though. 

Aiyuk would have been foolish not to take advantage of what he was able to bring to the table. 

"He also was our punter which people didn't realize," Snelling said. 

It was an idea brought forth from a coach that had seen Reggie Bush do the same thing at Helix High School in San Diego, as having someone of Aiyuk's ability would force other teams to play them honestly. 

Serving as the punter, in addition to playing many other positions, had him as a regular on the field. 

"He was our punter, our kick-off return guy, obviously our punt-return guy, and then was our feature guy at wide receiver and was our lockdown corner. So he never came off the field -- he was pretty much out there all the time," Snelling laughed. 

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Athletes in Northern Nevada often aren't scouted heavily, but Aiyuk, a 2016 graduate at McQueen, was special. His 81-inch wingspan made NFL combine enthusiasts blush, which has been compared to that of six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson, or even someone who had a 6-feet-8 frame. Aiyuk measures at 6-feet tall. 

Snelling even dubbed Aiyuk as one of the best athletes as a senior in the entire state of Nevada.

[RELATED: John Lynch leaned on Edwards for Aiyuk insight]

While the two didn't have a very close relationship off the field, Snelling admitted he'd been paying close attention to Aiyuk's career. Aiyuk matured a lot during his time at Sierra College in the nearby city of Rocklin, Snelling admitted. 

But regardless, Snelling on the edge of his seat during that ridiculous 81-yard touchdown against the Oregon Ducks in November, just as the rest of us were.

Here it is for a reminder.

We don't know what would have played out if Aiyuk were to decide on Alabama, or Butte -- or any of the other places that wanted him to play at a different position. Perhaps the butterfly effect would have changed something -- or nothing at all. But his insane athletic ability would still have us talking about him in 2020. 

The 49ers are just glad he's sporting their colors now, and selfishly as a Niners fan himself, so is Snelling. 

How 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk was recruited by Alabama to play cornerback originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area


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