Kendall Hunter received a short but heartfelt ovation from the 49ers' offensive line when he trotted into the field during 11-on-11 drills Saturday. After all, it had been eight and a half months since the lineman had seen the running back in a huddle. "Everybody was glad to see me back out there," Hunter said afterward. "And it's a good chemistry there."
Hunter, 24, was the team's No. 2 running back when he went down with an Achilles' tear Nov. 25, and he was averaging an impressive 5.2 yards a carry. Jim Harbaugh said he thought Hunter eventually would retain that job, but that it wouldn't happen automatically. Hunter was eased into practice Saturday, and Harbaugh said he'd have to fight off LaMichael James, who took over the No. 2 spot in Hunter's absence
"He definitely has been on it as far as his assignments - very attentive at meetings," Harbaugh said. "... But whenever you're coming off any injury, you've got to prove that you're back to 100 percent. And also you've got to better than other people. But we all know what Kendall's about, and I think things will go well for him."
Hunter will be added to a backfield that includes starter Frank Gore, James, Anthony Dixon, undrafted rookie D.J. Harper and Jewel Hampton. James started Thursday's preseason opener -- and averaged 3.4 yards a carry -- with Dixon and Harper also seeing action at tailback. Harper's second-quarter fumble led to the only touchdown of the game. Hampton did not take any offensive snaps and did not take part in Saturday's practice due to a minor injury.
The 49ers now have two players on the physically unable to perform list, receivers Mario Manningham (ACL) and Michael Crabtree. Crabtree completely tore his Achilles' on May 21. He is currently on schedule to return to the field in late November or December.
The same surgeons who operated on Hunter's Achilles' handled Crabtree's procedure and Hunter said Crabtree is continually asking him questions about the rehabilitation process. "We talk every day," Hunter said. "It's good to have somebody that's been through that. He sees me back on the field and it's motivation for him to work harder."
-- Matt Barrows