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49ers' Kaepernick rises, without fear, to the ultimate test

By Simon Evans

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith after the starter went down with a concussion midway through the regular season the 25-year-old second-year signal caller did not flinch.

Whether it be the three sacks suffered in his first game last November, a damaging interception returned for a touchdown in the playoffs against Green Bay, or erasing a 17-0 deficit in the NFC championship game, Kaepernick has taken everything the National Football League has thrown at him in stride.

"I don't really get nervous," Kaepernick, who will make his 10th NFL start in Sunday's Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens, said on Tuesday.

Kaepernick was so impressive in his first start that 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh decided, controversially at the time, to stick with him even though Smith was healthy enough to start.

Having been drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of the University of Nevada's unheralded football program, it was clear the 49ers had plans for Kaepernick, just few expected them to arrive this season.

Yet, the calmness and focus of the Wisconsin-born quarterback have allowed him to make the most of the chance given to him as he has led San Francisco to their first Super Bowl in 18 years, at times in spectacular fashion.

His athletic ability makes him a serious threat to defenses both in the air and on the ground, something that San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman exploited to the maximum.

"It's a lot of fun," said Roman when asked about creating a gameplan with such a quarterback. "Colin is very intelligent, so he just opens up a lot of different doors for what we can do week-in and week-out. He's doing a great job. It's about as fun as it can get as a coach."

It is fun for fans too.

In the second round of the playoffs, Kaepernick ripped apart the Green Bay, with a thrilling display of the damage a dual-threat quarterback can inflict. He set a record for the most rushing yards by a quarterback in any game with 181 yards with two touchdowns and also up to the threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns.

Then, with the pundits still pontificating about his ability as a running quarterback in the lead-up to the NFC Championship game, he showed he can pass from the pocket, completing 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown, while only rushing twice in a win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Off the field, Kaepernick's tattoos capture the current fashion for body art and his laid-back approach has earned him widespread popularity, so much so that he is already having to deal with the price of fame.

"It is a bit weird. Three months ago I could go anywhere, now it's a little bit harder," he said, surrounded by television and radio microphones at media day at the Superdome, site of Sunday's game.

With the praise flowing so freely at American football's annual festival of hype, there are some who feel a little perspective is needed when talking about a player who, after all, has yet to play a full season in the NFL.

"He's got to be durable, play every week and practice every day. Win or lose he's had a heck of a year but let's put another year together, let's not jump the gun," said former 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci.

"Enjoy where he is now as a youngster and be hopeful that he is going to be one of the stars in the league, at some point, on a consistent basis.

"Let's watch this play out - no disrespect, I love what he has done, I love watching him but we hear words like ‘great', ‘elite' and ‘star', those are earned over time, a long period of time and he's just taken the first couple of steps."

All true, but there will be no escaping the superlatives if Kaepernick produces another thrilling, game-winning display on Sunday.

One thing that is certain, however, is that the quarterback won't be overawed by the occasion.

"Never seen that," says running back Frank Gore, "Never"

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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