TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The NFL’s rookie rushing leader is an undrafted free agent with a penchant for hurdling defenders in the open field.
Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount still may be best known for punching an opposing player when he was in college, however he’s well on his way now to making a name for himself as the tough, physical runner the Buccaneers have needed for years.
Despite joining the team only a few days before the season opener and not making his first pro start until Week 11, Blount heads into this week’s finale against New Orleans with a chance to top 1,000 yards rushing.
The 6-foot, 247-pound running back had the fourth 100-yard game of his career last week and enters Sunday’s game with 941 yards and six touchdowns.
“I feel really good about it,” Blount said of the surprising success he’s had since missing most of his senior season at Oregon after being suspended for punching Boise State’s Byron Hout following a loss in the Ducks’ 2009 season opener.
“A lot happened this season ... that gave me an opportunity to be able to play,” said Blount, who signed with the Bucs on Sept. 6 after spending training camp and the entire preseason with the Titans.
“Leaving Tennessee also gave me an oppotunity to play here,” the 24-year-old added, “so I was blessed with an opportunity to even get snaps as a rookie.”
Tampa Bay’s inability to run the ball consistently with Cadillac Williams in a featured role, as well as a season-ending injury to backup Kareem Huggins created an opening for Blount to get on the field sooner than the Bucs anticipated.
Initially hesitate to use the rookie because of his unfamiliarity with pass protection blocking schemes, Blount’s bruising running style, a propensity to break tackles and his uncanny knack for leaping over defenders made difficult to keep him off the field.
The rookie rushed for a career-best 164 yards, including a burst of 48 yards in which he stunningly hurdled Lawyer Milloy about 15 yards downfield, cut to his right and headed up the sideline to set up one of Josh Freeman’s five touchdown passes in a 38-15 rout of the Seattle Seahawks.
Blount also had a 53-yard run on the way to Tampa Bay’s biggest single-game rushing performance in 10 years.
“Every week it seems like you get one of those wow-factor runs with him,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “Certainly the leap (last Sunday) was impressive, about as impressive as you’re going to see from a back that size. To leap over the top of the defender ... to go over Lawyer Milloy like that, and then put your foot in the ground and accelerate was pretty impressive. He’s fun to watch.”
Blount has also had highlight-reel runs in which he’s hurdled over Arizona’s Kerry Rhodes and San Francsico’s Reggie Smith in the open field. He leaped over Carolina’s Chris Gamble inside the Panthers 10, spun in the air when the safety hit him and somehow managed to land with the ball extended over the goal line for a touchdown.
He’s at a loss for words for explaining his style, which is a carryover from his days at Oregon, where the native of Madison, Fla., played two seasons after spending two years at East Mississippi Community College.
“Somebody told me that ESPN gave me the No. 1 play of the week. I haven’t seen it yet. They told me they called me hurtling Blount or something,” he said.
“I’ve heard a whole bunch of different things. ‘Do you plan to do it going into every game?’ I was like, ‘I don’t plan to do it ever.’ It’s kind of a reaction. It’s just instinct when I do it. I’m just happy that I’m able to provide fans with entertainment.”
With 59 yards against the Saints, Blount would become Tampa Bay’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Williams gained 1,178 as a rookie in 2005.
Unlike Blount, who was undrafted primarily because of the punch that shortened his final season at Oregon, Williams was a first-round draft pick, No. 5 overall.
The rookie said he doesn’t have any bad feelings about being passed over in the draft by every team, including Tampa Bay.
Nor, he added, is out prove anybody underestimated him or his ability.
“I run hard just to let everybody know I still love the game no matter if I’m drafted or not. Just to let everybody know that I’m going to come out here and have fun no matter who’s team I’m on,” he said.
“It’s not that I’m running angry. ... I’m not running with a chip on my shoulder. I’m just happy I got the opportunity, and I’m going to try to make the best of it.”