SANTA CLARA — Ji’Ayir Brown stood among a crowd of reporters answering questions when a member of the support staff handed him a football.
It wasn’t just any football, either. It was the one he intercepted in the end zone Sunday in a 27-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi’s Stadium.
Brown first held it in the crook of his left arm, then raised it with hands to give it a kiss.
It was pretty much the same reaction coach Kyle Shanahan and 49ers teammates had for the rookie third-around draft pick out of Penn State, who stepped in for Pro Bowl strong safety Talanoa Hufanga. Brown’s interception with 3:42 remaining was one of three plays he made as the Bucs were starting to make the game more interesting than the home fans would have liked.
Brown had two other end zone breakups in a promising debut that appears could become long-term as Shanahan said the 49ers feared a torn ACL for Hufanga, which would end his season.
The 49ers didn’t have a selection until the third round in part because of the deal that landed Christian McCaffrey, and when their turn came up at No. 87 overall, Brown was their first selection.
There was talk of using him in three-safety alignments along with Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson, but he had played only 30 defensive snaps in nine games while doing the bulk of his work on special teams.
Being prepared for a day like Sunday was a consistent messages from coaches and teammates. Middle linebacker Fred Warner told him again Saturday night.
“Every day they tell me, stay ready, stay ready,’ ” Brown said. “It didn’t happen the first couple of games, or the games after that but I always knew one day it was going to happen. I was talking to Fred last night and he was like, ‘Stay ready.’ I told him, ‘That’s why I’m here with you.’ “
Brown’s big moment came midway through the third quarter when Hufanga injured a knee attempting an open-field tackle of Rachaad White.
It didn’t take long for Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield to find Rakim Jarrett for 41 yards on a seam route over the middle, directly into Brown’s coverage responsibility.
“When I stepped out there, I pretty much felt that Baker was kind of peeking at me, going through his cadence,” Brown said. “I think he was coming for me — which is the right thing to do. But I was ready. It was a great ball by Baker, a great play. He earned it.”
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Yet the big gainer didn’t bother Brown at all.
With 6:35 left in the fourth quarter and the Bucs with fourth-and-goal at the 4, Brown broke up a jump ball attempt to Mike Evans to give the 49ers the ball.
“We sent a blitz, I was expecting the ball to get out quick,” Brown said. “Mike turned the flat into a wheel. But I was able to see the flight of the ball and go straight and play through my hands. He’s one of the best guys in the league with the jump ball so I wanted to break the ball out of his hands so he couldn’t catch it.”
The discipline it took to make the play without drawing a flag for pass interference impressed Shanahan.
“Sometimes your biggest fear when they throw it up is when it’s underthrown it’s so hard not to P.I. the guy,” Shanahan said. “And for him not to get the P.I. and knock it down, it was a hell of a play.”
He had another end zone breakup and then saved the best for last with the interception when Mayfield’s pass went off the hands of Chris Godwin and was caught by Brown on a dive in the end zone.
“It was a tipped pass, it was falling, I dove for it and got it,” Brown said. “You want to tuck and secure it. I tried to turnover, but I had the wind knocked out of me. I hear Fred and all the guys saying, `Get up and celebrate.’ “
Brown said he wasn’t sure about Hufanga’s status was relishing his big moment. If Hufanga indeed has a torn ACL, it’s a significant season-ender in that Hufanga was a breakout first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler last year in just his second season.
In truth, Hufanga has been more solid than spectacular this season, and Brown was drafted with the idea that he’d get on the field at some point this season. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks talked during the week about Brown’s steady improvement in practices, and his scout team assignment this week was to simulate Tampa defensive back Antoine Winfield against the 49ers’ offense.
“Ji’Ayir gave us a great look with Winfield being one of the best defenders,” quarterback Brock Purdy said. “He’s got great instincts and he was all over the place, just like Winfield.”
Tight end George Kittle joked that he “cooks” Brown every week in practice before talking about how the rookie has fit in. Kittle and Fred Warner have a talk with rookie players about being sponges when OTAs end, and Brown appeared to take the message to heart.
“He does things that really good players do, whether it’s taking care of your body, the mental side of it, watching a lot of film, talking to your coaches and taking every day seriously,” Kittle said. “That’s why he was set up for this opportunity today.”
Despite the lack of action, Brown believed he was making steady progress.
“Every day I was getting better. Every week. Every second,” Brown said. “I met with coaches. I’ll be meeting with them tomorrow. I’m always trying to pick brains. The more brains I can pick the smarter I get. That was me getting better.”
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