Kap on avoiding big hits: 'Run where they're not'
In his postseason debut, Colin Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a record 181 yards and two more scores. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SANTA CLARA -- In 2006 Colin Kaepernick was sitting in the back of the film room taking copious notes as a redshirt freshman with an upstart Nevada program. Almost seven years and a few FBS and NFL records later, he's preparing to start the NFC Championship for his hometown San Francisco 49ers.
"You only get one shot, so you have to be on top of everything," Kaepernick said.
One list Kaepernick tops is the batch of young, multidimensional NFL quarterbacks. He's the last man standing among the "new breed" of QBs -- true passers that can run like the wind, such as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
At 25 years of age, Kaepernick is defining this new breed of leaders, and while you can hardly take your eye away from his plus-athleticism and cannon-arm -- assets that got him drafted by the Cubs in 2009 without ever playing collegiate baseball -- it is his mental toughness and student-of-the-game approach that will eventually turn heads nationwide.
Kaepernick has been blessed with a triumvirate of coaches bent on plying him into an elite quarterback. From Bay Area QB guru Roger Theder to the man who ushered UNR from Division 2 to Division 1AA to Division 1 Chris Ault to Jim Harbaugh, his coaches have demanded the best.
"I think (mental toughness) is something they ingrained in me throughout my career," Kaepernick acknowledged Wednesday. "I've always had great quarterback coaches coaching me and I think that's really helped me get to where I'm at right now."
Where he's at right now is on the precipice of the biggest game of his young career, coming off a record-breaking postseason debut with a chance to advance his storied franchise to 3-9 all-time in postseason road games.
But how did the 6-foot-5, 233-pound athlete's path land him at the podium outside the 49ers training facility?
It started with Theder, who laid the foundation for Kaepernick's football career by nursing three cornerstones of what he considers the ideal quarterback.
"He's really smart," Theder said over the phone. "He's tough. And he has a great arm."
It's that combination, albeit in the form of a still-growing and unpolished field general that was passed on the Ault at the University of Nevada Reno.
With a senior starter, Kaepernick redshirted in 2006 -- just the second year Ault deployed his pistol offense.
"He would take the necessary time in the film room and on the board," Ault recalled from his first season with Kaepernick, "not just to learn the offense, but what he was learning better than most was the <em>philosophy</em> of the offense."
Over the next four seasons, Kaepernick and Ault would define a new offensive attack that produced the only FBS player to throw for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in a collegiate career, and maybe more importantly, a profound understanding of the offense that is eking its way more and more into the 49ers' weekly gameplans.
To Ault, who moonlighted as the team's quarterbacks coach, Kaepernick "was always a student, even his redshirt year as a freshman." What concerned Ault most was, surprisingly, Kaepernick's throwing ability.
"When he came here, his throwing skills were very average," Ault said. "He was somewhat of a sidearm thrower. That was the No. 1 thing that I felt we had to do to have him go from a thrower to a passer. The whole deal was teaching him how to throw the touch ball, how to throw the line ball, because he always had a gun."
Kaepernick worked hard to perfect his technique before working hard to internalize the offense that each year grew more complicated -- Nevada didn't install the read-option until the end of his sophomore year.
Ault, who stepped down from his position as Nevada's head coach and does not yet have a job lined up for next year, foresees a continuing shift in the landscape of the NFL away from the traditional pro style passer. Specifically, he anticipates the league will soon feature play-action passes and bootlegs off the pistol.
[RELATED: Could Kaepernick be reunited with Ault?]
Ault is plenty familiar with the 49ers coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman made an educational visit to Ault's Nevada program three years ago to absorb as much about the "pistol" offense as he could. And Ault acknowledged speaking extensively with Harbaugh before the 49ers moved up the in 2011 NFL draft to get there man, surprising many by drafting Kaepernick 36th overall.
[RELATED: Roman learned from Ault, Kaepernick]
Harbaugh and Roman provided the ideal landing place for the 24-year-old, and Ault agrees: "Absolutely, one hundred-percent."
Harbaugh's intensity mirrors Kaepernick's stoic and dedicated approach to the game, and Roman's ingenuity and progressive offensive strategies are allowing the team to implement new weekly gameplans tailored to Kaepernick's unique skill set.
Following the NFC divisional-round playoff game last Saturday, Kaepernick and Harbaugh each acknowledged the installation of more plays designed to utilize Kaepernick's running ability, which resulted in an NFL-record 181 rushing yards for a quarterback.
[RELATED: Kaepernick sets NFL QB rushing record]
Kaepernick will be in hostile territory in Atlanta this weekend, but it won't be unfamiliar. The second-year quarterback has already started games in two of the NFL's five true domes, as well as what is considered the league's loudest stadium in Seattle. He's 4-2 on the road where his QB rating of 89.1 is significantly lower than his 109.4 Candlestick mark. The splits show his completion percentage is down and rush attempts are up in one fewer game on the road. Additionally, all three of Kaepernick's regular season interceptions came on the road, and Atlanta boasts Cal product Thomas DeCoud, who tied for fifth in the NFL with six picks this year.
But it will be Kaepernick making the plays Sunday, not his numbers. And his coaches -- past and present -- are plenty confident.
While the reticent Harbaugh is so focused on Sunday that he may or may not put his clothes on the right way, Kaepernick's former coaches have no problem projecting him as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks of the future.
"Colin will keep getting better and better and better," Theder predicted, "and with Jim Harbaugh's great leadership, for years to come he'll be a great quarterback."
"I think the 49ers are just now scratching the surface of where they can go with their offense in terms of what Coach Harbaugh does, what he believes in, and how he takes advantage of the things that Kap can do for him," Ault said.
It's clear fans believe in Kaepernick's durability, too. Following his postseason debut against the Packers, his jerseys are flying off the shelves faster than any other NFL player, according to Fanatics.com.
The budding superstar is handling the heightened spotlight with aplomb not unfamiliar to a Bay Area sports audience that watched San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey keep an even keel through two World Series titles and a host of accompanying personal accolades.
"I think Colin does a great job of continuing in his humility," Harbaugh said Wednesday.
Intelligence, toughness, a strong arm and years of tutelage under the likes of Theder, Ault and Harbaugh have Kaepernick well prepared for Sunday's NFC showdown with the Falcons. They have 49ers fans thinking Super Bowl -- the franchise's five-time high-water mark, reached only with Hall of Famers Steve Young and Joe Montana.