No player from Samford University has ever been drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft.
That fact didn’t mean much to Jaquiski Tartt going into last May's draft. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound safety knew he belonged on the professional stage despite coming from an unheralded college program.
“I thought I was a first-round talent,” Tartt said. “There were some guys that got drafted the year before and I thought I was just as good as those guys. I ended up going in the second, but it’s all a blessing.”
The San Francisco 49ers used the 46th-overall selection this year on Tartt, who accomplished a goal he knew was within reach after a standout sophomore season at Samford.
That season, Tartt led the Bulldogs with 94 tackles, including 57 solo stops. The safety was also named first-team all-conference as well as an FCS All-American.
“From that year on, I just started focusing on my craft more and trying to get better,” Tartt said. “In the end, I wanted to be able to get a chance.”
Tartt’s chance at NFL football is even more remarkable when you consider that he didn’t start playing the sport until his senior season in high school.
The Mobile, Ala. native played at the pop warner level growing up, but he quit football in favor of basketball. It wasn’t until Tartt got pressure from a family member that he considered getting back on the gridiron.
“My granddad always kept telling me every year that I needed to go back and play football,” Tartt said. “I kept pushing it off.”
When his grandfather passed during Tartt’s sophomore year of high school, the urge to trade his sneakers for cleats grew stronger. By Tartt’s senior year, he gave into that desire and decided to put the pads on once again.
Tartt already had plenty of size, speed and an inclination to hit people. Safety became the obvious position choice. Tartt even had a player in mind that he wanted to emulate his game after.
“Sean Taylor,” Tartt said without hesitation. “He’s one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game. Just watching him, he can come down and hit, cover, everything.”
Fast-forward through his successful career at Samford, and Tartt is now starting at strong safety for the 49ers.
San Francisco’s rookie had played in each of the team’s first seven games but was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 8 following a season-ending injury to 2014 Pro Bowler, Antoine Bethea.
In his first start against the St. Louis Rams, Tartt recorded six tackles and forced a fumble. When Rams receiver Tavon Austin caught a pass in the first quarter, Tartt was able to close on the play and knock the ball out. Fellow rookie Eli Harold eventually recovered the loose ball, marking for the team’s first fumble recovery of the season.
The 49ers ended up losing the game, but the experience was invaluable for the first-year defensive back.
“It was great," Tartt said. "I had a lot of fun out there. I wasn’t nervous or anything. I won’t say it was like practice, but we do a lot in practice that’s really tough on us which makes the game a whole lot easier.”
And while San Francisco misses Bethea’s leadership on the field, Tartt made sure to learn as much as he could while playing behind the veteran safety through the beginning of the season.
Bethea is still around to offer his guidance to the young players on the roster despite being placed on Injured Reserve.
“You always watch AB, that professionalism and how he approaches the game,” Tartt said. “He always knows the play before it was coming. I want to pride myself in being on that level someday.”
Tartt had the signature of his young career the following week against the Atlanta Falcons.
On a 2nd-and-9 play in the fourth quarter with the 49ers up 17-13, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a pass to the right intended for Julio Jones. At first glance, it appeared that Jones had enough space to secure the catch and get a first down.
That’s when Tartt showed off his closing speed.
Just as Jones got his hands on the football, the safety lowered his shoulder and unleashed a crushing hit on the Falcons star receiver.
“I was just reading the quarterback’s eyes, and you know Ryan loves to pass it to Julio,” Tartt said. “I got an early break on the ball and hit him.”
While Julio gathered himself and returned to the Falcons huddle, Tartt’s teammates celebrated the hit.
“They were super pumped,” Tartt said, grinning. “It got everyone going.”
When asked about Tartt’s recent play, Jim Tomsula said the rookie was progressing and called him, “a very good football player.”
That hard-hitting safety is certainly trending upwards and will be a player to watch during San Francisco’s final seven games of the regular season.