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49ers Rookie Lorenzo Jerome Has Shown He Belongs in the NFL

Defying odds isn't new to Lorenzo Jerome. He'd been told plenty of times before that he's too small and too slow to be an elite defensive back. It's why the safety went to St. Francis (Pa.) instead of a traditional college football powerhouse (or any other FBS school for that matter).

It's also why NFL teams collectively decided that 253 other prospects were more worthy of a draft choice.

No matter. Jerome has always known what he's capable of. He brought a first-round mindset to the Bay Area after signing with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. Jerome expected to compete for a starting job. And not after two years working his way from the practice squad to the active roster, but immediately.

That certainly takes some good fortune, and there's no denying that Jerome has benefitted from Jimmie Ward's hamstring injury. However, good fortune means nothing if you don't take advantage of the opportunity.

He's done just that through two preseason starts. 

"He's grown up a lot," Eric Reid said of Jerome. "To be running with the ones as a rookie is tough. I remember my rookie year and the pressure that comes with that. You want to live up to the expectations that you set for yourself. I think he's been doing well. He made a huge tackle on the first play of the game (against the Denver Broncos). I think that got everyone excited. He's just got to keep doing what he's doing."

Jerome made noticeable progress from the first week of the preseason against the Kansas City Chiefs to last Saturday's game against the Broncos. His reads were more decisive and he was quicker to the ball. 

On the play that Reid alluded to, Jerome sniffed out a wide receiver screen at the line of scrimmage for a short gain. A few plays later, he nearly intercepted Paxton Lynch while patrolling the secondary in Cover 3.

"I think I took a step forward," Jerome said of his performance. "I think our whole defense took a step forward. I still made a few mistakes, and so I can't wait to correct those on Monday."

The biggest learning curve for Jerome is how drastically better the quarterback play is in the NFL. Signal-callers at the FCS level can't compare to Alex Smith's ability to look off the safety and find Tyreek Hill downfield.

That's where Reid comes in as an excellent resource. Reid, who started as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl in 2013, spent last week watching film with Jerome. Ward and Jaquiski Tartt joined as well.

"I feel like the game slowed down a lot for me. The guys helped me all week," Jerome said. "You've just got to be patient and be a ball hawk. That's what I do best."

The pre-draft knock on Jerome was his speed. A 4.7-second 40 time at the NFL Combine didn't help his case. But the man who grabbed a school record 18 career interceptions knows there's more to football than straight-line speed.

"I've always known I have the speed," Jerome said. "The 40 time is just running in a straight line. Football is about angles and making good reads. I feel like my speed on a football field is way different.

Who knows how the depth chart will shake out when Ward returns. We may find out this week. But until then, the unexpected pairing of Reid and Jerome will continue to hold down San Francisco's secondary. One LSU Tiger and one Red Flash from St. Francis.

"I don't think the school makes a difference," Reid said. "He's here because he can play football, and he can play well."

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