TAMPA — LeGarrette Blount is one of a few running backs who does some of his best work with both feet in the air while remaining down to earth.
The former Oregon star leads all first-year rushers with 941 yards and six touchdowns. But what usually makes the No. 1 play of the week on ESPN's SportsCenter is when the 247-pounder hurdles a safety and leaves the defender with a fistful of air while Blount touches down softly.
It happened again in Sunday's 38-15 win over the Seahawks. A 48-yard run was punctuated by a jump over 15-year veteran Lawyer Milloy.
"He's had three or four of those this year," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "The first time, you may look at it and you might think that was kind of a novelty. But as he's leaping guys, he's got vision to see the next guy coming, and he's making a cut as he's putting his foot on the ground."
The Bucs are reaping the benefits of taking a leap of faith on Blount.
After releasing veteran Derrick Ward, the Bucs claimed Blount off waivers from the Titans on Sept. 5. Before arriving in Tampa Bay, Blount was best-known for punching a Boise State player after a loss to the Broncos in Oregon's 2009 season opener.
But Blount has taken the high road as a pro, on and off the field, and has changed the fortunes of the Bucs offense.
With no real period of transition, no offseason to learn the offense, and no preseason to work on it, Blount has emerged, with Bucs receiver Mike Williams, as the leading candidates for the league's offensive rookie of the year.
Blount was inactive in three of the Bucs' first five games, including a 31-7 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 17 at Raymond James Stadium. He did not start until the 10th game of the season, at San Francisco. But since he began getting extensive playing time, Blount has averaged 91.1 yards over the past 10 games.
Blount insists he isn't bitter about not being drafted, and he is humble about his success.
"I run hard just to let everybody know that I still love the game, whether I'm drafted or not," said the 24-year-old from the North Florida town of Madison. "Just to let everybody know, I'm going to come out here and have fun, no matter whose team I'm on. It's not that I'm running angry or anything. It's not that I'm 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."
Blount is a punishing back. According to the STATSPASS statistical service, he leads the NFL in broken tackles with 27 despite having nearly 100 fewer rushing attempts than the No. 2 back, the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw with 23.
But Blount also has the speed to break long runs. He has a 53-yarder to go with a pair of 48-yarders and a 39-yarder this season.
Because of Blount, the Bucs rank seventh in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 127.8 yards per game. To put that in perspective, the Bucs have finished ranked in the top 10 in rushing only three other times. They were eighth in 1978 (152.3), fourth in 1998 (134.3) and ninth in 2000 (129.1).
How will Blount change the game plan for the Saints this week?
"The same way he's changed our offense the whole year," coach Raheem Morris said. "It's kind of that deal. He's certainly provided us a blunt force, no pun intended, on first down. He's gone out there and been a battering ram for us and been a guy who's gotten to the open field and created big plays for us in the run game. Him tagging up for us with Cadillac (Williams) has been awesome."
But nothing gets more attention than when Blount goes Edwin Moses on an unsuspecting safety.
"Somebody told me that ESPN gave me the No. 1 play of the week. I haven't seen it yet," Blount said. "They told me they called me hurdling Blount or something. 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 was just kind of a reaction. It's just instinct when I do it. I'm just happy I'm able to provide our fans with entertainment. Hopefully they'll start coming (to games) more."
Said Olson, "He's impressive. He had a number of runs last week, but everyone will remember the leap."