After two preseason games, free safety Lorenzo Jerome appears to have secured a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster.
Not bad for an undrafted rookie who prepped for the NFL in the Northeast Conference.
Jerome played at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., a no-name school that competes against schools perhaps better known as last names (Malone) or full names (Robert Morris). In fact, Jerome could face one of the NFL’s biggest names – Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant, who will visit Santa Clara in Week 7 – just 372 days after playing against Bryant University.
Jerome is proud of his college, which has less than 2,000 students. During training camp, he termed St. Francis a “great program” and said he was pleased when general manager John Lynch self-edited after calling his college a “Division III” school. St. Francis competes in the NCAA Division I subdivision, which was formerly known as Division I-AA.
“I like the fact that he corrected himself and said ‘Sorry, Lorenzo Jerome, Division I,’” he said. “It made my school happy. It made myself happy.”
The 49ers are happy they have Jerome, a former member of the Red Flash who has been a quick study in the NFL.
After he had 47 pass break-ups and 18 interceptions in college, Lynch said Jerome led the team in picks during offseason practices. During training camp, he added two more interceptions and took advantage when injuries landed him with the first-string defense.
On Saturday, in a preseason loss to Denver, Jerome started ahead of Jaquiski Tartt, a 2015 second-round pick, and the quick study made an immediate impact.
On the game’s first play, he diagnosed a bubble screen to wideout Bennie Fowler and raced up from nine yards behind the line of scrimmage to stop him for a one-yard gain. On Denver’s next drive, he made an open-field tackle of running back C.J. Anderson at the 1-yard line to stop him for no gain.
In two preseason starts, Jerome has five tackles and a pass break-up, and hasn’t been burned by a deep pass while serving as the last line of defense. Pro Football Focus has graded him 17th among 210 safeties.
Jerome will relinquish his starting spot when Jimmie Ward returns, presumably this week, from a hamstring injury that’s sidelined him all summer. However, it would be stunning if he surrendered his roster spot.
“He’s grown up a lot,” safety Eric Reid said. “To be running with the (starters) as a rookie, it’s tough. I remember my rookie year and the pressure that comes with that. You want to live up to the expectations that you’ve set for yourself and I think he’s been doing well.”
Reid went to LSU. And it was suggested that the pressure on Jerome could be greater given his smaller-school roots.
“I don’t think the school makes a difference,” Reid said. “He’s here because he can play football. And he can play well.”
Jerome has played with a confidence since his arrival that’s made it clear he believes he belongs. He was among the most aggressive tacklers during training camp – his ferocity inspired some chirping from wideout Marquise Goodwin during one practice – and he’s maintained the instinctual, gambling style that resulted in his pick parade at St. Francis.
Jerome, whose plodding 40-yard dash time (4.70 seconds) at the combine was a reason he went undrafted, has continued to compensate for his lack of speed with a sixth sense.
In the midst of training camp, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh labeled Jerome’s style “nerve-wracking,” but acknowledged the rookie had yet to pay for his aggression.
“Sometimes I look at the tape and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you can do that bud,’” Saleh said. “But he always ends up in the same spot. He has a good feel.”
On Sunday, head coach Kyle Shanahan praised Jerome for his poise and play-making ability. However, he also noted the Broncos didn’t make him pay on a few plays when he was out of position.
Jerome figures to eventually get punished for his playing style, but he doesn’t figure to be unnerved. He’s noted that he struggled when he left St. Francis and played in all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl, against Division I competition.
“At first, I was getting toasted; getting burned,” he said. “But I had to adapt. I had to get used to it.”
Eric Branch is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Eric_Branch