LeGarrette Blount puts punch in the past

Undrafted after he punched an opposing player in a college game, LeGarrette Blount has embraced his opportunities in Tampa. Scott A. Miller/US Presswire

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount could've pouted or complained or simply decided the world wasn't going to give him a fair shake. Instead, he's taken all the hard times of the past 16 months and turned them into his own personal inspiration. In the process, he's become the NFL's most productive rookie runner this season. Other than St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, no player can make a stronger claim for offensive rookie of the year honors.

To understand Blount's story, you first need to remember whence he came. He was the Oregon star who threw that punch in a loss to Boise State last September, the one that dropped Broncos linebacker Byron Hout and later crippled Blount's chances of being drafted. To this day, Blount believes there are still people who think of him only in relation to that highly publicized night, and he understands why. What he also understands is that he can change that perception if keeps playing the way he's been playing.

The 6-foot, 247-pound bruiser leads all rookies in rushing (941 yards) and he's averaging a robust 5.2 yards per carry. Those numbers are even more impressive considering that Blount has played in only 12 games, starting six. "Things are working out because they've actually given me the chance to show what I can bring to the table," Blount said. "When I first got here, I was excited to just dress and play in my first game. Ever since that time, I've been trying to show them that they were right to bring me here in the first place."

Blount isn't the only Bucs rookie who has had to overcome a bad boy label entering the NFL. Wide receiver Mike Williams -- whose 924 receiving yards give the Bucs an opportunity to be the first team to have the league's top rookie rusher and receiver since 1970 -- also had red flags attached to his name after academic issues led to his quitting the Syracuse team last fall. But Williams' talent generated enough respect for the Bucs to select him in the fourth round of this year's draft. Blount didn't hear one team call his name in April. Even worse, the Tennessee Titans later cut him at the end of their training camp.

This is where Blount's story could've drifted into familiar territory. He could've bounced around a few practice squads, hoped for a job on special teams somewhere and then turned up on a roster in the UFL or CFL. Blount chose a different path, one that is consistent with his game; he refused to go down after one or two hits. He was convinced there was a way to keep his career alive, even when nobody seemed to be paying attention.

What the Bucs understood is something that got lost in all the controversy back in Oregon: Blount wasn't a bad guy. There were legitimate questions about his temper and work ethic, but there were also signs of his maturity. Blount was the only prospect to wear a suit when the Bucs invited 30 college players in for interviews before this year's draft. He also was the one person who went into the kitchen to thank the staff for cooking and serving meals to those in attendance.

The Bucs were even more intrigued by Blount when they followed his play during the preseason. When Tennessee released him, they saw a tough runner who could gain yards after contact. "You knew he was a guy who could hit the hole and move the pile," said Bucs general manager Mark Dominik. "But then he gained 10 yards on his first carry [against Pittsburgh] and he was dragging [Steelers Pro Bowl strong safety] Troy Polamalu in the process. That's when we really thought he could do some things here."

Blount still has a hard time understanding why so many people were excited about his debut against the Steelers. "I had six carries for 27 yards and the media just blew it up," he said. What Blount didn't realize was that it wasn't the numbers that moved people that day. It was the likelihood that Tampa Bay had stumbled onto something that makes a rebuilding effort all the more encouraging: a hidden gem.

Since that game, Blount has given the Bucs exactly what they were hoping to find. He's been a punishing presence, one that has helped keep pressure off a passing game led by second-year quarterback Josh Freeman. Blount has gouged Arizona for 120 yards, Atlanta for 103 and Detroit for 110 yards this season. He produced his best effort in a win over Seattle on Sunday, when he gained 164 yards and hurdled Seahawks strong safety Lawyer Milloy on the way to a 53-yard run.

Yet those highlights aren't the only reasons for Blount's joy these days. He is part of a talented rookie class -- the Bucs have had four first-year starters on offense -- that should be the foundation of a long, successful run in Tampa. His son, his longtime girlfriend and his parents are living just three hours away from Tampa. He also has the vindication of knowing that his hard times didn't wilt his spirit. "I kept my faith through everything," Blount said. "I knew something positive would happen eventually."

Blount does realize that all this adversity may have been what he needed to reach this point. Like Williams, he's had to compete with a chip on his shoulder, a sense that many skeptics are waiting for him to blow this opportunity. That's often the hard part of coming into the league with a stigma attached to your name. The fun part, as Blount as learning, is showing people what you're really all about in the end.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.