How Brendel defied odds to earn expected starting center job


The preseason had unceremoniously come to a conclusion on Thursday night in Houston.

Jake Brendel stood in front of his locker, fully clothed, roller bag at his side, and ready to get on the bus to the airport. He was stopped for what might have been his first media interview since his arrival with the 49ers in February 2020.

He did not hesitate when asked if he is expecting to line up Sept. 11 as the 49ers’ starting center for the regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears.

“Yes, I am. For sure,” Brendel answered. “We’ll see how that goes and make the best of it.”

Brendel turns 30 years old on Sept. 10. The next day, he could very well establish himself as a full-time starter for the first time in his NFL career.

He has been given an opportunity this summer after the retirement of veteran center Alex Mack. And, thus far, Brendel has made the best of it.

It has been quite a journey for Brendel. He entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. He appeared in 37 games, mostly on special teams, over the past six years with the Miami Dolphins and 49ers. He also had opportunities with the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens but failed to catch on.

“Anyone in my inner circle probably three years ago never would’ve thought I’d be here,” Brendel said. “So it’s honestly a blessing. I take every single day as that and try to make the best of it.”

In early August 2020, Brendel decided to opt out of the season due to concerns — and uncertainty — related to COVID-19. For a player struggling to find some semblance of stability in the NFL, it easily could have ended his career.

“After the COVID opt-out, I think a lot of people thought I’d be done,” Brendel said. “But I didn’t take a day off. I stayed in the weight room and stayed out on the field, and I made sure I was in the best shape of my life coming off that year.

“Really, I think a lot of people wrote me off at that point, but I didn’t allow it to happen.”

Brendel said his sister was one of the first individuals in the United States to get COVID-19. Back when tests were not precise, she tested positive for three months, he said. When teams reported to training camp in 2020, the NFL presented players with the option of sitting out the season.

Brendel had to make a quick decision. Then, he said he did not look back.

He returned to the 49ers last season, and won the backup job.

Now, he appears to be in line for the first NFL starting role of his career.

Brendel has been reunited with offensive line coach Chris Foerster. They were together with the Dolphins in 2016. Foerster remembers being immediately impressed with Brendel after seeing him on the field.

“This guy has some quickness and balance and strength, and he started a ton games at UCLA,” Foerster said. “Then, I met the kid, and really liked him. He’s very serious-minded, hard-working, played with good strength. He’s a player.”

He lacked in height (6-foot-3, weight (286 pounds) coming out of college, which were the reasons he went undrafted after starting a school-record 52 games.

But he makes up for it with his athleticism and smarts. He earned the nickname “Coach Jake” at UCLA, and he rated highly among all offensive linemen at the NFL Scouting Combine in the 40-yard dash (5.01 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.27) and three-cone drill (7.31).

Brendel is a good fit for the 49ers’ system, which counts on its offensive linemen to explode out of their stances and create running lanes with their outside zone concepts.

The 49ers open the season with uncertainty at their interior offensive line positions in front of first-year starting quarterback Trey Lance.

Second-year left guard Aaron Banks and rookie right guard Spencer Burford are going through the ups and downs of learning on the job.

Brendel has three starts in his career.

Daniel Brunskill started every game for the 49ers over the past two seasons. He has the versatility to play any of those three positions. Brunskill has been out since Aug. 12 with a hamstring injury.

RELATED: Question marks surround 49ers' cloudy interior O-line

Right now, Brendel appears to be the most steady option among that group.

“This offense really needs three athletic offensive linemen,” Brendel said. “A lot of people would think I’m a little bit undersized for center. Really, that’s my strong suit. I can get to the second level pretty quickly and use my athleticism to my advantage. So that’s really why I fit this offense.”

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