Sonny Dykes must have thought he was looking at four different players.
When Dykes, then coach at Louisiana Tech, started looking at Quinton Patton in 2010, Patton was playing wide receiver, safety, punter and kick returner for Coffeyville Community College in Kansas.
This told Dykes two things:
First, Patton was one of the team’s best players and the Coffeyville coaches wanted him on the field as much as possible.
And, second, Patton loved football.
“He had a passion to play the game,” said Dykes, now Cal’s coach. “He wants to be out there. When the game is on the line, he wants the ball.”
The 49ers happily discovered that last week.
With 18 seconds remaining and the 49ers needing a big play to avoid overtime against Arizona, Patton delivered just that when Colin Kaepernick lofted a 29-yard pass along the sideline and the rookie wide receiver went up and over a Cardinals cornerback to retrieve the ball. The reception set up Phil Dawson’s 40-yard field goal as time expired.
Patton also had a 26-yard run and a big, downfield block during Anquan Boldin’s 63-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter.
Patton is a late but welcome arrival to the 49ers’ mix.
The fourth-round pick appeared to be in line for a prominent role in the offense beginning in Week 4 against St. Louis, but he broke his foot early in that game. When he returned 21/2 months later, he was behind Mario Manningham on the depth chart. Manningham, however, still hadn’t fully recovered from last season’s knee injury and was placed on injured reserve last month.
That gave Patton a second chance.
For most of the season, the 49ers struggled to find one legitimate wide-receiver target opposite Boldin. Now they suddenly have three – Michael Crabtree is the other – entering today’s NFC wild-card game against Green Bay.
“He’s going to make a lot more things viable to us,” Kaepernick said of Patton. “We can do a lot more things – different personnel groups, different things like that. He’s just another piece to the puzzle.”
What stood out most about Patton when he arrived at Louisiana Tech, Dykes said, was how competitive he was.
He attacked the ball in the air – his safety background, no doubt, playing a role – and he would seem to have his best games on the biggest stages.
When Texas A&M beat Louisiana Tech 59-57 in 2012, for example, Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel made headlines for passing for three touchdowns and running for three. But Patton nearly stole the spotlight from the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, catching 21 passes for 233 yards and four touchdowns, the best game of his two years at Louisiana Tech.
“He made play after play that day and got us back into the game,” Dykes recalled. “He was a really good catch-and-run guy for us, and he was fearless when the ball was in the air.”
The 49ers have been seeing the same things in practice. And coach Jim Harbaugh’s assessment of Patton is similar to Dykes’.
“I really think he’s a competitor,” Harbaugh said last week. “Competing for balls. Competing to get in position to make a block. Competing when he’s running with the football. I think all those things were very good. Very excited for him.”
Patton, meanwhile, has made a smart move off the field, sidling up to Boldin, an 11-year veteran who led the 49ers in receiving this season and who was named the team’s MVP on Friday.
“I’ve been talking about him all year,” Boldin said of Patton. “I love his energy, what he brings to the table. He’s another playmaker outside, a guy that’s hungry to put his mark on this game. He’s been working his butt off. He had a setback earlier in the year with the foot injury, but he worked hard to get back on the field and he’s making plays for us, and he’s a guy that we’re relying on now.”