Rookie running back D.J. Harper is wearing a badge of honor across the bridge of his nose -- a gash he acquired early in training camp when he tangled with one of the 49ers linebackers in a pass-blocking drill.
The encounter may have cut Harper's nose, but he won his battles that day, including against veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman whom he briefly knocked to the ground. Afterward in the running backs meeting room, Harper was singled out by position coach Tom Rathman, a rarity for any rookie tailback much less an undrafted one like Harper.
"I've got to live up to it now," Harper said today. "I can't go out there and have one or two good days. I have to live up to it. So every single day I come out here I want to continually get better and keep on trying to win those battles."
Picking up blitzing linebackers doesn't get a running back noticed by the fans. But failing to do so can keep a young player on the sideline. Harper, who ran for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns last year at Boise State, said it's something that was drilled into him in college, and it may lead to a few carries in Thursday's preseason opener against the Broncos.
A young 49ers running back has been the preseason champion in rushing yards four times since 2007.
Starter Frank Gore figures to make only cameo appearances this summer and Kendall Hunter, the exhibition-season champion in 2011, still hasn't been cleared for practice following his November Achilles' injury. That means the carries will be split among LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon, second-year player Jewel Hampton and Harper.
At 5-9, 211 pounds, Harper is similar in size and shape to Gore, and he shares one of Gore's traits in that he, too, suffered ACL tears in back-to-back seasons in college. He tore is left ACL in 2009 and 2010. Both injuries occurred in the third game of the season.
Harper said he felt 100 percent recovered a year ago (his stats bear that out) and that the injuries have not been an issue this year. In fact, his only nick so far is the one across his nose. "That's what sticking my nose in there and banging it will do," he said. "But that's what you've got to do. You've got to be tough."
Summer champs: Here's where 49ers running backs have landed in preseason rushing yards since 2007 ...
2012: 6th - Anthony Dixon, 171 yards
2011: 1st - Kendall Hunter, 231 yards
2010: 1st - Anthony Dixon, 300 yards
2009: 1st - Glen Coffee, 249 yards, Benjarvis Green-Ellis, 249 yards
2008: 3rd - Thomas Clayton, 186 yards
2007: 1st - Thomas Clayton, 200 yards
-- Matt Barrows