TAMPA — If it appears Matt Breida emerged out of nowhere to become one of this season's best NFL success stories, the story behind the second-year pro's breakout season is far from that.
Breida, the San Francisco 49ers running back who played high school football for Nature Coach Tech in Brooksville, took the path less traveled. He was ignored by big college programs, received no invitation to the NFL combine and went through the 2017 draft without hearing his name called.
But Breida and the 49ers had a plan. The team saw something in the speedy but slight back and signed him as an undrafted free agent.
Breida, 23, comes home Sunday for the Bucs-49ers game at Raymond James Stadium as a key piece to San Francisco's future.
Breida's 5.59 yards per carry are third-best in the NFL among backs with at least 500 rushing yards. His eight runs of 20 yards or more are tied for most in the league with the likes of Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley.
"He's just a tremendous kid," said 49ers general manager and former Bucs standout John Lynch. "We're really proud of the work he's doing and think he's going to be a part of us for a long time. … He's been great. He's probably one of our most improved players."
Breida was slated to share the running back load with free-agent acquisition Jerick McKinnon, but McKinnon suffered a season-ending knee injury just before the opener.
"I knew it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance that you can't let pass you by, so you have to make the most of it," Breida said.
The 49ers thought the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Breida had the ability to break out. He ended last season with back-to-back 70-yard rushing games averaging 6.35 yards a carry, including a 104-yards all-purpose game in the 49ers' finale.
"The speed and the power he runs with gives him for a smaller guy gives him the chance to be successful at this level," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
Breida said it took time to grab hold of Shanahan's intricate offense, which blends West Coast quick-passing schemes with a zone blocking ground attack . His understanding of the 49ers playbook led to early success this season. Two weeks in he was the NFL's leading rusher.
"The first couple weeks of the season I did notice I was getting more attention and people were starting to take more notice of me and thinking, 'This guy's actually good,'" Breida said. "I try not to let it get to my head. I still know I've got a long way to go to where I want to be at."
Despite a senior year at Georgia Southern that saw his production go down, the 49ers thought he'd be a strong fit for their offense.
"We thought about drafting him late," Lynch said. "Sometimes when a talented player slips, there's … a reason behind it. They had a coaching change at Georgia Southern and they didn't feature him as much.
"He went from almost six yards a carry his junior year to like 3.9 or something his senior year. But we watched that film and thought he was a great one-cut runner which we covet in our scheme."
Breida might have had his best all-around game two weeks ago against the Giants, scoring two touchdowns while rushing for 101 yards on a career-high 17 carries while adding 31 receiving yards on three receptions.
Our Bucs coverage team's picks for this week's NFL games, including three Thanksgiving Day games. @TB_Times @NFLSTROUD @EddieInTheYard @tometrics @TomWJones @mjfennelly @MikeSherman @hoop4you https://t.co/jFzye32Npd— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) November 22, 2018
His scores against the Giants offer an example of the multi-dimensional threat he's become. On his first, he took a handoff, breaking a pair of arm tackles for a three-yard touchdown run. On the second he made a lunging one-handed catch into the end zone from 11 yards out. His day included two runs of 20 yards or more.
"He's got excellent change of direction," Bucs defensive coordinator Mark Dufner said. "He can stop on a dime, like people say, and cut and get vertical on you. He can cut back. This guy has got really good skills athletically and I think he sees holes pretty well and he's got a good receiving capability as far as coming out of the backfield. This guy is a real threat for them."
The 49ers (2-8) own the league's third-best rushing attack at 133.6 yards a game. While that hasn't translated into many wins or points — San Francisco's 23-point average ranks 18th in the league — the team's many young talented offensive weapons, from Breida to tight end George Kittle, 25, and quarterback Nick Mullens, 23, have been on display.
Four of the 49ers' eight losses have been by four points or less.
"I feel like us going through these growing pains right now, it's only going to help us when we get to next year or the year after when our record is really good and we're going deep in the playoffs," Breida said. "We have (already had) these close games and we're going to know how to finish. We're going to know we've been in this situation before and it's not going to be anything new. It's not where we want to be right now, but it'd definitely going to help us to where we're going."
A season-ending injury to a player of O.J. Howard's caliber would be catastrophic to most teams. The Bucs simply turn to Cameron Brate. #Bucs #Buccaneers @Buccaneers @EddieInTheYard @TB_Times https://t.co/6qYpTvYSKs— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) November 22, 2018
Bucs notes: Bucs S Jordan Whitehead, who suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Giants, remains in concussion protocol, but returned to practice on Thursday in a non-contact role.
LB Lavonte David (knee), S Justin Evans (toe), C Ryan Jensen (hamstring) and CB M.J. Stewart (foot) didn't participate in Thursday's practice. WR DeSean Jackson (thumb) was a full participant.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.