Tom Rathman is anticipating hurt feelings. The 49ers, after all, essentially have been a one-man show at running back since the 2006 season. That's when Frank Gore took over as San Francisco's featured runner, and he's taken the lion's share of the carries since then.
This year, that solo act promises to give way to an ensemble cast. The problem is that there's not a role for everyone. "I don't know if everyone's going to be happy with the time that they get," Rathman, the team's running backs coach, said. "... Because we don't know what the situation is right now. It's all going to play itself out. The good thing is we've got depth at the position. So we're going to lay it on the line when we get into training camp and see who fits what role."
During the offseason, the 49ers brought in veteran Brandon Jacobs during free agency and used a second-round draft pick on LaMichael James. Those two joined a group that already had Gore, emerging second-year runner Kendall Hunter and third-year tailback Anthony Dixon. The 49ers also brought in undrafted free agent Jewel Hampton and signed free agent Rock Cartwright to be a special teams ace.
Another difference from previous years is that it's June and Gore is working out in the Bay Area. He's usually in his native South Florida at this time.
Gore was well above his playing weight when he reported for the 49ers offseason program, but that's normal. He usually gains weight in the offseason - getting up to 220 pounds or so - before losing it in July in anticipation of training camp. Indeed, Gore already has shed most of that weight in the last few weeks. Rathman said Gore works out three days a week, including a boxing regimen at night.
"He's working hard, he's out here, he understands what's at stake," he said. "We've got a very good group. We're very close to where we want to go. And I think the attendance we had this offseason kind of exemplifies that as far as guys want to be here, they want to be in the system, be around their teammates because they know we're close. And we've just got to take that next step."
Rathman spoke about each of his primary runners:
On whether Brandon Jacobs must run with more power:
"Evaluating him, I thought he was a very physical runner. He has the ability to do what we're looking for him to do. He has to understand who he is as a player. We need him to pack it up inside and run over guys and be physical as a ball carrier. If we want to ... run outside, we'll put somebody else in."
On whether LaMichael James needs to bulk up:
"I don't think so. Because he's already an impact player. That's what he is. So he's going to be a guy that makes a lot of plays for your offense, can do a lot of different things for your football team. I don't know if you ask a guy to put on weight, try to be somebody that he's not or he hasn't been in his past experience playing football."
On Kendall Hunter benefitting from a full offseason:
"If the player wants to get better, he's going to get better. Kendall is the type of guy that's going to do everything he can to get better. But it is a huge advantage for him being in the offseason program this year. Both he and (fullback) Bruce (Miller). ... he's going to be a lot further along when the season gets here because he'll know what he's doing. And he's looked very good in the OTAs. It shows."
On how Anthony Dixon looks:
"Actually all the running backs are looking pretty good. Solid group, we've got a lot of depth. But all of them have to understand what's at stake. You know, it's going to be tough as far as the numbers. But that's going to bring out the best out of all those guys. Someone told me that the cream always rises to the top and that's our belief - that the cream is going to rise to the top out of that group.
On whether Dixon understands the urgency of the situation:
"I think everybody understands the urgency, even Frank with having a draft pick in the second round coming at his position. You sign Brandon Jacobs. So it's not necessarily one guy. I think the whole group has a sense of urgency that, hey, man, we've got to play at a high level, we've got to play consistent football and that's what it's going to take to take that next step to get to the Super Bowl."
-- Matt Barrows