Sophomore year. Big rivalry game. First play of the second half in a tight contest.
Former Nevada coach Chris Ault knew Colin Kaepernick, 20 years old at the time, was an excellent athlete. But the play that began the third quarter at UNLV in 2008 revealed to him that the quarterback was so much more.
At the time, Ault and Nevada were just starting to perfect the pistol offense that would run roughshod over the Mountain West Conference in coming years. The play was to the short side of the field. Ault was on the opposite sideline, 150 feet away.
“To run the read in that situation – it’s got to be perfect,” Ault, 69, recalled. “He ran it, he pulled it, and all of a sudden I see him plant and turn up the field. I want to say it was a 61-yard touchdown. He flat outran the secondary. It was a crucial part of the game, and he was as calm and as cool and as collected as could be.”
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Ault’s recollection was close. It was a 66-yard touchdown in a game the Wolf Pack won 49-27 and in which Kaepernick ran for 240 yards and three touchdowns.
“That was the game that convinced me we had ourselves a quarterback,” Ault said. “It told me he understood what we were trying to do with this offense.”
It also was the first performance in what would become a theme for the quarterback: Kaepernick seems to be at his best when the stakes are the highest and the boos are the loudest.
Sunday’s game falls into that category.
On social media throughout the week, Bills fans have discussed not only singing the national anthem – which Kaepernick prominently is protesting this season – during the pregame ceremony but also when the 49ers have the ball, the better to knock Kaepernick out of rhythm.
The anthem protest, coupled with Kaepernick’s first start this season, is sure to bring to the game a national spotlight the one-win 49ers wouldn’t have had if Blaine Gabbert still were quarterback.
There’s also pressure from within.
Kaepernick’s last two seasons have been a long slide from the dizzying heights of his 2012 Super Bowl appearance. Since he was yanked from the starting lineup last year, the biggest stories involving Kaepernick – his surgeries, his trade demand, his pleas for equal rights for minorities – have been off-field items.
Now the ball is back in his hands, and he’s looking to rekindle his old magic.
Ault believes the 49ers have the right coach to do that.
“When I heard they hired Chip Kelly, I really felt it was great for Kap’s career,” he said. “Because of what Chip does and what Kap had done in college; I thought it would fit Kap well.”
Both offenses aspire to wear down opponents with pace, and the running games are similar. Ault’s system put Kaepernick in the pistol formation, in which the quarterback lines up 3 or 4 yards behind center and has a running back behind him. Kelly’s has the quarterback in the shotgun, a few steps deeper than the pistol position, with a tailback typically off to the side.
The offenses also notably give the quarterback the option of running the ball, something Kaepernick did with great success early on with the 49ers but which has mostly been snuffed out by better-prepared defenses the last two years. In 2014 and 2015, he scored two rushing touchdowns and was sacked 80 times.
“I think there’s a lot of great things this offense does and allows the quarterback to do,” Kaepernick said. “Like I’ve said in the past, it’s similar to things I’ve done in college, and that makes me feel very comfortable in it.”
Ault said he expected Kelly would give Kaepernick the detailed coaching he received from Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman in 2012 and 2013 but which he felt was lacking the last two seasons.
“He wasn’t, in my opinion, throwing the ball the way he was capable of throwing it,” Ault said. “I’m not trying to blame coaches, I’m just saying that attention to detail, which he needed to have, was lessened.”
Kaepernick’s productivity certainly dropped. In 23 regular-season starts in 2012-13, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 31-11, and he crossed the goal line another nine times with his legs. In 24 starts since, that ratio was 25-15 along with two rushing touchdowns.
Now the questions are whether Kelly can get Kaepernick back on track and whether the quarterback can do the same for the coach’s flat-lined offense, which ranks 31st in yards per game.
Kaepernick’s reappearance in the lineup may be the juiciest NFL story line of the week, but Kelly said it merely was a practical decision.
“It was just, we need to improve on the offensive side, and that was the decision we made to move forward offensively,” he said