• Akash Anavarathan

49ers' RB Jeff Wilson Jr. aspires to be the next emerging star under Kyle Shanahan

Coming off of a breakout campaign, running back Jeff Wilson Jr. is committed to becoming Kyle Shanahan's next diamond in the rough this season.

While the last few months have been life-altering amidst a global pandemic, it's provided the chance for San Francisco 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to spend much-needed time with his family in East Texas.

For NFL players, the league calendar may specify an off-season between February and July, while in reality, between unofficial player workouts, organized team activities (OTAs), and other business ventures, the real vacation time is just a handful of weeks in June.

With the abandonment of OTAs and other activities in the team's facility, players are now staying at home close to their loved ones. The child-like joy was evident on Wilson Jr.'s face as I asked about his quarantine experience. "I am having some pretty adventurous days. It's nice, I love it. I have a lot of time with family and it's been a blast, just a blessing."

Despite relishing this extra time with his loved ones, the 49ers' running back has continued to keep the pedal to the metal, as San Francisco looks to embark on their Legendary Revenge Tour of 2020, as many of its players have already coined it.

Wilson Jr. has been able to improve his game, adding "it's the same old, same old. It's a grind. You know what you have to do and the work you have to put in," as he works out at the University of Texas campus in Dallas, TX with his cousin.

It's a crucial off-season for the former undrafted free agent out of North Texas, as there's an opportunity to seize among the tailbacks that the 49ers employ. After starting in five games in 2019, running back Matt Breida was traded to Miami on draft weekend. Tevin Coleman enters a contract year and there's a whole lot of unknown surrounding Jerick McKinnon.

Given the circumstances, Wilson Jr. has a prime shot to steal one of the top running back spots on this 53-man roster and he's fully aware of it.

"Right now, we have a lot of competition, we'll have Tevin Coleman, we'll get Jerick McKinnon back, who's a great receiver," the North Texas star humbly proclaimed, while also adding that rookies JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed -- who Wilson Jr. calls SA -- shouldn't be taken lightly either.

Wilson Jr. has known Hasty since their shared time growing up in East Texas and he describes to me that having a familiar face from home has actually been comforting in the 49ers' running backs room.

The North Texas alum was highly complimentary of his fellow position mates, but given his experience on this team, his excitement to grow into a bigger role in 2020 was palpable. In his second year under Kyle Shanahan's tutelage, Wilson Jr. developed into the offensive guru's secret weapon, being unleashed when the 49ers' backs were against the wall.

With running back injuries plagued San Francisco early in the season, the former Mean Green football star tallied four rushing touchdowns in a two-week span.

As 2019 wore on, a plethora of tailbacks pushed Wilson Jr. down the depth chart, but Shanahan and the offensive staff deployed their best receiving threat out of the backfield at critical junctures.

Against Arizona, as the 49ers rallied back from an early deficit, Wilson Jr. was inserted with 37 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter as San Francisco's offense was looking for the go-ahead touchdown. Next thing you know, Wilson Jr.'s celebrating in the back of the end zone, as the Levi's Stadium crowd erupts to the former undrafted free agent's first career receiving touchdown.

One play, one touchdown. I would say his touchdown-to-catch ratio of one is pretty darn good.

Now fast forward to the Super Bowl. Wilson Jr. had not seen any action during the divisional or championship rounds, despite San Francisco running wild all over the NFC North foe Green Bay Packers.

Yet, in the team's biggest game, run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel and running backs coach Bobby Turner entrusted Wilson Jr. to be one of the running backs to dress.

No. 30 validated the coaching staff's trust in him, catching a 20-yard pass on third down to give the 49ers a chance to score points at the end of the first half. Again, he stepped in for a crucial play and it paid dividends for a sputtering offense.

Watching Wilson Jr. making these plays, it's difficult to comprehend how a player can stay laser-focused, knowing he will be called on to execute a handful of plays and consistently delivering in the high-pressure situations.

But Wilson Jr. seems like he's as cool as the other side of the pillow, discussing these intense moments:

"You have to play the role and you have to do your part. Doesn't matter what that might be or where that might be, you just have to step up and be a professional. And when your number's called, you got to ball. That's it. That's just the league we're in, if we don't, then somebody else will. You train for that moment and pray for that moment for your whole life, so I've always been prepared."

While the third-year tailback is focused on creating more magical moments on the field, he's also been playing bodyguard for starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and any pundit that discredits his abilities.

Wilson Jr. did not hold back his feelings about the 49ers' signal-caller, saying, "It's the same way I have always felt about him.

"I'm ready to get back in tune with him, just to see his smile, listen to his jokes, and just see him be the leader that he is. He's back for a reason. He's a great quarterback, he's a great leader and I'm ready to ride back with him to the Super Bowl."

The admiration Wilson had for his fellow teammate was evident, but he shares similar adoration for foes as well — namely running back Adrian Peterson.

As a young Wilson Jr. grew up in Elkhart, Texas, a running back phenom was tearing up the field at a nearby high school. The East Texas native, accompanied by his father, would head to Adrian Peterson's games and watch through the fence as the soon-to-be NFL MVP was taking the country by storm.

Those moments came full circle for Wilson Jr. this past October, as the 49ers faced off against Peterson's Redskins in Washington D.C. Once the game started, the realization finally hit Wilson Jr. that he was on the same field with the player he watched closely as a teenager.

Post-game, the affection turned jovial, as Wilson Jr. addressed the elder statesman, "What's up, old man!" The two caught up and Peterson autographed his game-worn jersey — a memento Wilson Jr. cherishes closely.

While Wilson Jr. watched Peterson's on-field ability closely in his adolescence, his idol and inspiration for playing the game was his father, Jeff Wilson Sr. Just like any father-son relationship, Wilson Jr. aspired to top his dad's legacy, despite the fact that Wilson Jr. told me there was no video evidence to support his dad's case.

Their relationship transcends football, dating back to Wilson Jr.'s days in the choir. While his dad was the lead singer, the junior Wilson was the drummer for the group, "I've always been in tune with music. If I wasn't playing football, I'd find some type of band or start my own. I'd be doing something related to music. It probably wouldn't be my career, but it would be a part of my life."

Luckily, he hasn't needed to experiment with his music career, as he's starting to thrive in Kyle Shanahan's system. For a running back looking to explode onto the scene this upcoming season, there's no better offense to be featured in, as it creates star after star.

But as Wilson Jr. tells me, don't look for him to be celebrating his success by air drumming in the end zone.

For the full interview video, visit this link here.

Akash Anavarathan covers the 49ers for Fourth and Nine. Follow him at Twitter @akashanav.

Graphic via Dillon Hiser.


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