Matt Cilley / Associated Press file, 2007

Colin Kaepernick stretches toward the goal line in his first start for Nevada, a 69-67 loss to Boise State. He threw for three scores and ran for two.

49ers' Kaepernick had 'it' in his first college start

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 - 8:53 am

NEW ORLEANS – Colin Kaepernick would have been forgiven if the combination of adrenaline, nerves and sheer arm strength caused a few misfires early in last week's game.

After all, the second-year quarterback was making his first NFL start and was doing so on national television against one of the league's top defenses. If his first few passes flew high and wide, it would have been perfectly understandable.

They didn't.

Kaepernick, who figures to make his second start today against the New Orleans Saints, calmly completed an eight-yard pass to Mario Manningham on the game's first play. His next attempt was one of the prettiest of the evening – a 22-yarder to Vernon Davis over the tight end's outside shoulder.

In Reno, the coaches at Nevada were excited but hardly surprised.

They had watched a similar scenario unfold five years earlier when Kaepernick, a little-known redshirt freshman at the time, made his first start for the Wolf Pack against an imposing Boise State squad.

Starting in place of injured sophomore Nick Graziano, Kaepernick flashed the same steel he showed against the Chicago Bears on Monday.

In a back-and-forth game that stretched into the fourth overtime, Kaepernick threw for 243 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 177 yards and two scores.

Kaepernick didn't win that one, though. Nevada fell 69-67 when he was tripped while rolling out on a two-point conversion attempt after the final touchdown.

But Graziano never got his job back.

"He just took it right to the brink," Barry Sacks, the school's defensive-line coach, recalled. "They happened to clip him at the end or we'd still be playing right now. That game was the launching of a star."

Sacks recruited Kaepernick out of Pitman High School in Turlock, becoming enamored with the intensity Kaepernick showed on the basketball court.

Sacks suspected Kaepernick had the indefinable "it" all programs seek in a leader. The Boise State game confirmed it.

"After that, I knew – had supreme confidence – that we were going to win," Sacks said.

Kaepernick's greatest gift, say those who know him, is a focus so powerful he doesn't get rattled, no matter how daunting the situation or glaring the spotlight.

"He's a little different that way," said his father, Rick Kaepernick. "A lot of people will ask me, 'Doesn't he get nervous?' No, he doesn't."

Rick said he remembered dropping Colin off at the Manning Passing Academy in 2009. The camp is run by NFL quarterback royalty Peyton and Eli Manning and attended by national media.

Kaepernick was the most anonymous face in a group of young passers that included Andrew Luck, Christian Ponder and Kellen Moore.

"Colin and I walked in there, and they didn't pay any attention to us," Rick said. "Then he started throwing the ball."

At one point, Eli Manning was watching another quarterback when one of Kaepernick's fastballs whistled past his head, causing him to spin around.

"Who threw that ball?" Rick reported Manning saying. "I heard it!"

From that point, all eyes were on the skinny flame-thrower from Nevada.

Back in Reno, Sacks said he and the other Wolf Pack coaches never get to watch "Monday Night Football" because they usually are working on that week's game plan. Nevada was on its bye last week, however, and all eyes were on their former pupil.

"There's still a buzz going on here," Sacks said.

They watched Kaepernick get off to a fast start and never slow down. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards – the same total he had five years ago – and two touchdowns.

He also helped tight end Vernon Davis break out of a four-game funk. Davis caught one touchdown pass and finished with six catches for 83 yards.

"He's very confident about his ability and his knowledge of the game," Davis said of Kaepernick. "And he wants to succeed, just like Alex (Smith). They both want to succeed, and they'll do anything to get there.

"That's what I admire about him. He's got that eye, the eye of the tiger."

It's the same unflappable focus Sacks saw for four years at Nevada.

"He probably came out of the womb acting like that," Sacks said.

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