Blount makes big splash during Ducks' spring practice
EUGENE, Ore. -- This child of the football-crazed deep South left behind the SEC and ACC, not to mention sweet tea, red velvet cake, warm sunshine and his family, to carry a football in the region of Birkenstocks, granola and rain.
Watching LeGarrette Blount run over and around flailing Oregon defenders during spring practices -- thereby easing concerns over the departure of first-round NFL draft pick Jonathan Stewart -- it's impossible not to wonder how this elusive, 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back got away from the southern regional powers that coveted him, such as Alabama and Florida State, which were far closer to his hometown of Perry, Fla.
The answer might make some traditionalists and sartorially conservative members of the media and college football fandom pucker up as though they were sucking on a lemon -- might we suggest a nuclear yellow lemon that approximates one of the myriad shades of Ducks football?
It's the uniforms.
Yes, those space-age, constantly changing and often unapologetically outrageous Oregon uniforms that many love to snark about.
Obviously, Blount tapped Oregon over other suitors for a variety of more substantive reasons, but listening to his detailed explanation of what he likes about the uniforms makes it clear the issue isn't a trifle for him.
"We don't wear the same thing twice -- I love that," he said. "I don't want to play for a sluggish-looking team."
Clothes don't make the man and uniforms don't make the program, but the multibillion-dollar fashion and sports apparel industries certainly suggests they help, something that Ducks coach Mike Bellotti -- not exactly a fashion-forward guy -- recognized long ago while his program's special relationship with Nike grew, er, even more special.
"The people at Nike -- is there a better marketing agency in the world for sports apparel and shoes? No. They know what kids like," he said. "I'm 57 years old, I haven't put on a uniform in years. To me, what I perceive sometimes doesn't matter. I'm going to trust their judgment. I know it gets a splash."
Speaking of splashes, Blount did a cannonball into the middle of Oregon's talent pool. While Bellotti and company thought they signed a quality back out of East Mississippi Community College -- he was generally considered the nation's top junior college running back last year -- they didn't expect him to announce himself with such authority.
After dominating scrimmages with power, uncanny balance, good vision and sneaky speed, Blount capped the spring by rushing five times for 68 yards in front of 14,107 giddy fans at Oregon's spring game Saturday.
Bellotti, asked about Blount perhaps 7,341 times over the past three weeks, eventually adopted a stock answer to inquiries, repeatedly telling buzzing reporters that, no, Blount was not yet a facsimile of Stewart but he certainly approximated former Duck and eight-year NFL veteran Reuben Droughns. The pair shares a bruising style and ability to make something out of nothing.
"One thing he does that I didn't see on film was he moves really well in tight spaces," running backs coach Gary Campbell said. "He's got really good feet and really good eyes and a really good feel running with the football. He's better than I thought, and I thought he was going to be pretty good."
Campbell discovered Blount the new-fashioned way -- on the Internet. He was looking for a big back who could play immediately and saw Blount's generous dimensions on a recruiting list. It seemed like a long shot, but Campbell telephoned and Blount said he was interested, so Campbell flew down to Scooba, Miss., for a face-to-face chat, unsure of what he'd find.
"Then he walked into the door," Campbell said through a Cheshire cat grin. "And I said, 'Yeah, that's the guy.'"
Blount wasn't exactly off the radar. He'd signed with Auburn out of Taylor County High School but didn't qualify academically. The recruiting gossip last winter was he was almost certainly headed to Florida State, but the seeds of his cross-country sojourn were initially sown on a faithful October afternoon when he and some buddies watched Oregon nip USC on television.
Said Blount, "Those uniforms are tight."
"Would you go there?" a buddy asked.
"I'd go there."
That made Campbell's work easier. It also helped, by the way, that Blount guessed Stewart would jump into the NFL draft a year early.
Blount took a visit to Florida State, where he noticed the commitment list included a larger number of running backs than he'd been led to believe. That compelled him to call Campbell from Tallahassee and give his pledge, though he worried about ringing his future position coach at midnight.
But the magic of Pacific Daylight Time, one of the new and exotic delights in Blount's life, made that a non-issue.
Of course, the adjustment to the Northwest hasn't always been easy. Folks talk funny up here, for one, and they can't seem to wrap their mind around sweet tea and how food is always better when it's fried. Blount also recoils at the heresy of putting sausage on a croissant instead of supporting its natural habitat: a flakey buttermilk biscuit.
"That's not right," he said.
On the plus side, he enjoys experiencing different cultures. Like hippies.
"I've met a couple of them," he said. "They are some funny people. They talk completely different than I do -- 'Like, totally, dude yeah, dude.' But they're cool."
Blount's roommates are helping him acclimate, a crew that includes former quarterback Dennis Dixon and fellow tailback Jeremiah Johnson.
Remember Johnson? He figures to be the lightning to Blount's thunder.
More than a few people believed Johnson was as good or perhaps better and certainly more versatile than Stewart last year, but his season was a derailed by a knee injury he suffered in game No. 6 against Washington State. He sat out spring drills while completing rehab, but he's expected back at full speed by the fall.
Blount said he's perfectly comfortable being the power-running counterpunch to the speedy Johnson.
"I don't think he's worried about anything," Blount said. "He knows he's the premier back here."
Spoken like a true southern gentleman.
Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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