Ask Lorenzo Jerome’s former teammates and coaches at St. Francis University about the safety’s most memorable plays and they’ll rattle off a list.
There was the goal-line sequence that began with him lined up in one corner of the end zone and ended with him breaking up a pass to the tight end in the opposite corner. He once grabbed an interception 20 yards downfield even though he was on the line of scrimmage – again on the other side of the field – when the ball was snapped. When it came to screen passes, Jerome had a nose like a bloodhound, sniffing them out early and smashing them like a wrecking ball.
The memories have a theme – they all happened in practice. Jerome not only was the best athlete on Saturdays at St. Francis, he was the most active – and aggressive – player during the week. That began as soon as he arrived at the school in Loretto, Pa.
“He had something to prove,” said Marco Pecora, the defensive coordinator at St. Francis. “And there was a chip on his shoulder so big it was crazy. He started as a young kid testing the waters a little bit at practice. He really pushed the limits. And it was a good thing. At a time when we were trying to turn the program into a winning culture, I think we needed that attitude.”
The 49ers saw the same thing this summer.
Despite his rookie status, it didn’t take long for Jerome to get comfortable in the team’s defense. And when training camp started, he went a step further, swooping in from his free-safety spot to deliver gratuitous “thuds” on running plays and pestering even the most veteran receivers by trying to swat the ball free after any catch. His badgering of Pierre Garcon, a 10-year player and the leader of the 49ers’ receiving corps, was so over the top that the two nearly came to blows.
The 49ers liked what they saw.
“He’s not scared to hit someone,” Kyle Shanahan said. “The way he looks in games is very similar to how he looks in practice. I believe if you practice a certain way, it’s the same way you’re going to play – it carries over. The only time it doesn’t is if the game’s too big for someone. … The game’s not too big for him.”
There were two 49ers rookies on the field for the first snap of the game Saturday.
One, linebacker Reuben Foster, was a first-round pick who played at Alabama, the most celebrated football program in the nation. The other was Jerome, who wasn’t drafted at all and who faced the likes of Sacred Heart, Robert Morris and Central Connecticut in the Northeast Conference.
He’ll likely lose that starting role as Jimmie Ward is eased back into practice after recovering from a hamstring strain. But Ward’s three-week absence gave Jerome the toe-hold he needed to climb the team’s depth chart.
Now it seems likely he’ll become the first player from St. Francis to play in the NFL since Joe Restic put on a Philadelphia Eagles uniform in 1952, although Shanahan said he’s “definitely not ready to crown” Jerome quite yet.
“He’s got a long way to go,” Shanahan said. “But he has taken advantage of his opportunities with the guys who have been hurt.”
No one at St. Francis is surprised.
Jerome entered the Red Flash starting lineup as a freshman and played the same single-high safety role – patrolling the middle of the field, ensuring nothing goes deep – he plays for the 49ers.
“From Day One, you could tell he was the best football player on campus,” said Bishop Neal, who was a junior safety when Jerome first arrived in 2013. “And he’s a better worker than he is a player.”
Before Jerome’s junior season, coaches moved him to strong safety so he would be closer to the action. By his senior year he played three positions – both safety spots and nickel cornerback – depending on the upcoming opponent’s tendencies.
“We tried to move him to wherever the ball was going, to be honest,” Pecora said. “And I think it helped his knowledge of the game. It forced him to learn more of the defense. He knows what Eric Reid’s thinking down in that box. He’s played that position.”
The strategy paid off. Jerome had 18 interceptions in four years at St. Francis and scored eight touchdowns: Three on kickoff returns, two on interception returns, and one each on a punt return, a fumble recovery and a reception. After his senior season, he was named a first-team FCS All-American by The Associated Press.
Coaches hoped those accolades, as well as the fact that Jerome played in two college all-star games in January and grabbed two interceptions in each, would make him the first St. Francis product drafted by the NFL since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
That didn’t happen.
Teams were wary of the level of competition he faced, they didn’t like his pedestrian 40-yard dash time at the combine and there was a perception that he was better when the ball was in the air than he was at bringing opponents to the ground.
Jerome has eased all of those concerns this summer. On Saturday, for example, he made big tackles at the line of scrimmage in the game’s first four minutes and nearly had his hand on an interception on a pass down the left sideline.
They stayed up late to watch him in Loretto.
“I truly believe that great athletes are born with a competition or grit level,” Pecora said. “If you played him in chess, he’d want to win that as badly as he does the Super Bowl. Some people are born with higher levels of it, and he’s one of those guys.”