SANTA CLARA – Chip Kelly’s first game as Oregon head coach in 2009 ended in defeat and forced him to deal with an excruciatingly difficult decision regarding his star running back.
On the field after Oregon’s upset loss in front of a national-television audience, Boise State player Byron Hout taunted LeGarrette Blount, who responded with a punch that buckled Hout to his knees. Kelly suspended Blount for the season but allowed him to remain on scholarship and practice with the team.
Ultimately, Kelly reinstated Blount for the Rose Bowl after he met academic and behavioral conditions. Blount is now in his seventh NFL season, and leads the New England Patriots with 678 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
“I developed a great amount of respect for him in terms of what he went through and how he handled himself in a really bad situation that he knows he put himself in,” said Kelly, whose 49ers will face Blount and the Patriots on Sunday at Levi's Stadium. “But the way he was willing to stick with it. It could have been easy for him to say, ‘All right, I’m going to quit and go get ready for the NFL.’
"But he stuck it through, practiced with us not knowing if he was ever even going to play in a game. I think there was a lot of things that he had to do to get himself back in position to play and he did that. So I think it tells you a little bit about L.G. in terms of his perseverance and his attitude and understood. (He) was very remorseful for what he did, understood that he made a mistake, but stayed around to help correct that mistake in terms of what we asked him to do as a student and as a member of our team to give himself an opportunity to play again.”
Listed at 6 foot, 250 pounds, Blount figures to be a load for the 49ers’ run defense, which ranks last in the league. He thrives in the red zone, taking advantage of defensive tendencies to pay particular attention to quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots’ passing game.
Kelly said Blount’s vision, size and athleticism set him apart.
“Sometimes I think you see a back and your preconceived notion is he’s just a ram it up in there and kind of push the pile guy, but the one thing we knew right when we first got him was what great vision he has and then what great athleticism he has,” Kelly said. “He’s got some highlight reel-type runs both in college and in the NFL of hurdling people.”