During the 49ers’ rookie minicamp practice on Friday, quarterback C.J. Beathard drifted to his right, lofted a pass down the sideline and then watched as an undrafted, small-school safety named Lorenzo Jerome leaped in front of his target and came down with the interception.
It’s something Jerome did six times last season at St. Francis University and 18 times over his four years there. He was invited to two college all-star games in January — placing him against high-level opponents he didn’t always face in the Northeast Conference — and he grabbed two interceptions in each contest.
Which is why the 49ers made signing him a priority once the draft ended.
Free safety is perhaps the most pivotal — and precarious — spot on their roster.
For the defense to be as aggressive and as stout against the run as it wants to be, it must have a free safety who can control the deep middle of the field and discourage opposing quarterbacks from throwing there. The Seahawks’ Earl Thomas, who has 23 interceptions over his career, is the archetype for the role.
The 49ers feel as if they have a good version of Thomas in Jimmie Ward, who played safety in high school and college.
The issue is that Ward has battled an array of injuries — foot fractures, a quadriceps tear and a shoulder sprain — since being drafted in the first round in 2014 and there are no obvious solutions at the position if he gets injured again. The 49ers didn’t use any of their 10 draft picks on a free safety.
As the draft was drawing to a close last week he got calls from the Giants, Eagles and, of course, the Seahawks. But the 49ers’ wafer-thin depth at free safety, as well as how they utilize the position, made for an easy decision.
“I’ve been going over the playbook today and (Thursday), and it’s the perfect fit for me,” Jerome said. “I like where they have me. I like the system.”
Jerome grew up playing quarterback in Coral Springs, Fla. and wanted to continue playing the position in college. The only school that would give a 5-10 prospect a chance at the position, however, was St. Francis, an 1,700-student school in the farming town of Loretto, Pa.
He was converted to safety but found he still was able to utilize his quarterback background.
“It helped me a lot,” he said. “I know what to expect out of the quarterback. I know his posture, when he’s going to turn his hips, his shoulders. That helps me a lot.”
Jerome’s impact was immediate.
He played in all 11 games as a freshman, finished with six interceptions and was named the Northeast Conference’s defensive rookie of the year. In March he became the first St. Francis player ever invited to the NFL scouting combine and last week nearly became the first to be drafted from the school since 1945.
He wasn’t. But he still landed with the team that needs him the most.