The midseason move that inserted second-year San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick into the 49ers starting lineup was unconventional — fitting, given the arc of Kaepernick’s football career is unconventional. The former Nevada standout is blazing a new trail that, with a win in Super Bowl XLVII, will be looked at as the archetype ascension of the atypical star.
Rewind two years. Kaepernick was coming off a stellar senior campaign at Nevada, where he led the Wolf Pack to a program-best 12-1 final record and top 11 finish in the Associated Press poll. He registered monster numbers, joining Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow and Cam Newton in college football’s illustrious 20-20 touchdown club after 2008 and 2009 seasons knocking on the door of that historic mark. Kaepernick’s final 2010 line: 233-359 for 3022 yards passing and 21 touchdowns, with another 1206 yards rushing with 20 scores.
But where Newton and Tebow parlayed their 20-20 performances into first round draft picks, Kaepernick had to disprove naysayers. Questions about the system he ran at Nevada and his ability persisted when he went to the 2011 Senior Bowl.
Fortunately for Kaepernick, dispelling doubts because of his offense and proving himself at camp were two hurdles he had already cleared in his short career.
Rewind now seven years. On National Signing Day 2006, Kaepernick’s next move was met with little fanfare. Others bound for New Orleans began their college careers with hoopla, hype and their choice of options. Kaepernick’s choice of Nevada registered hardly a blip on the recruiting radar. In fact, it was the lone offer the skinny kid from Turlock, Calif. was presented.
Greg Biggins’ analysis of the Kaepernick commitment at Rivals.com may not have predicted a No. 11 AP finish, 20-20 season and Super Bowl in the youngster’s future. It did, however, see value in a prospect where others missed it:
Every year we come across a player or two that we feel have major talent but for whatever reason, end up being under-recruited. One of those guys this year was Turlock (Calif.) Pitman quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The signal caller went almost the whole year without a single scholarship offer but recently picked up offer No. 1 and jumped on it.
Former Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault reminisced about recruiting Kaepernick with the NFL Network’s NFL AM, saying “He came to my camp … so I had him for two days, got to work with him, see his ability, his athleticism. From that point on, we didn’t jump right on it, but he was a prospect.”
Despite his prototype quarterback height at 6-foot-4, recruiters were hesitant to pursue a quarterback from a Wing-T system. Kaepernick had to prove his ability in camp.
He got his opportunity from a coach testing unorthodox methods. Nevada was reinventing itself in the 2005 season before Kaepernick inked with the Wolf Pack. Ault innovated something called the Pistol, a move that has to be admired for its prescience. It’s as though Ault foresaw Kaepernick’s arrival, because the player and the system were so perfect for one another.
Playing out of the Pistol maximized Kaepernick’s talents, but also forced him to again go above-and-beyond to prove his value to the next level. That’s what he did at the 2011 Senior Bowl.
Landing in San Francisco has proven to be as important for Kaepernick as his move to Nevada. Jim Harbaugh’s rise to the 49ers sideline is about as unconventional as Kaepernick’s to starting quarterback. The second-year San Francisco head coach has done what he needed to win, including giving a quarterback outside the NFL norm the reins.
Kaepernick has succeeded because of his own, unique talents and insightful coaches who have presented him opportunities. But the success that’s blazed his trail opens pathways for other quarterbacks who might otherwise fall into gridiron obscurity. Expect GMs to take a longer look at quarterbacks coming from offenses not known for producing NFL play makers, like Arizona’s Matt Scott.
Somewhere on National Signing Day 2013, the next quarterback star will commit somewhere. But as Kaepernick proved, it may be where conventional wisdom least anticipates.