Throughout the buildup to San Francisco 49ers training camp, the competition behind ageless running back Frank Gore has loomed as a key position battle. The team's young stable of reserve backs has never been more impressive, and yet the most complete player among them has flown decidedly under the radar.
We're talking, of course, about fourth-year tailback Kendall Hunter.
Having served as the primary backup for each of his three professional seasons, Hunter has been slowed down only by an Achilles tear suffered during the 2012 regular season. The Oklahoma State product now faces his stiffest competition, however, including running backs LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore and rookie Carlos Hyde.
For all the hype these exciting young backs bring to the table, Hunter by far brings the most proven professional track record. Hyde and Lattimore both have yet to play a meaningful down in the NFL, while James fielded more kickoff and punt returns (35) than rushing attempts (12) in 2014.
By comparison, Hunter has rushed for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns on 262 career carries.
Because of this proven background, Hunter is likely to see plenty of opportunities behind Gore early on. His knowledge of the system and familiarity with the coaches should also give him a distinct advantage, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com:
Kendall Hunter, the 49ers’ backup running back in each of his three seasons with the club, is very underrated in all aspects. But the 49ers rate him highly. And that's all that matters. Until Hyde or Lattimore prove themselves, the 49ers’ coaching staff is going to stick with Hunter because they know he can be trusted.
With 27 career receptions to his name, the former fourth-round pick has shown additional versatility in the passing game. Hunter also performs well beyond his 5'7" frame in pass protection, which is crucial in gaining the favor of Jim Harbaugh's coaching staff.
However, Hunter's value isn't only seen in the finer details of the position. As any highlight tape will show, the backup possesses legitimate big-play potential:
To further break down some of these plays from 2014, let's look first at a rush against the Indianapolis Colts (seen at the 35-second mark).
On this 13-yard draw play, Hunter is seen taking the delayed handoff up the middle before bouncing outside behind a downfield blocker. Having already drawn the safety toward him, Hunter cuts and accelerates to the corner of the end zone with impressive speed for a touchdown.
Even on a short screen pass against the St. Louis Rams (seen at 0:44), Hunter showcases his elusiveness from the moment he catches the ball.
Hunter immediately avoids Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers before he is able to turn upfield. After dodging a defensive back with a well-timed juke move, Hunter spins his way into a forward fall through multiple defenders.
What could have been a blown-up play ends with the running back pushing his way forward for a nine-yard gain.
Hunter is far from simply an evasive runner, however, as displayed during this six-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals. As seen at the 1:41 mark of the video, Hunter follows the right guard through an excellent hole at the line of scrimmage.
Once through the initial line of defense, the running back comes to a one-on-one with Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu at the 2-yard line. Hunter's leg strength powers him through Mathieu and past the goal line without going down, remaining upright well into the end zone.
Finally, Hunter showcases the complete package on a 41-yard sweep play against the Jacksonville Jaguars (seen at 1:58). Starting with a simple toss to the left, Hunter takes the ball toward the sideline before cutting back inside.
The back's elusive moves and acceleration allow him to slip through two defenders, having already gained over 15 yards on the play.
The cut inside, however, leaves Hunter in the clear path of Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien. Hunter somehow maintains his balance through the impact of Cyprien's hit, allowing him to carry on upfield before dragging a defender for his final 10 yards.
While it's admittedly tough to summarize a player's skill set in just a few plays, Hunter's recovery from injury was impressive throughout the 2013 season. Even if not fully healthy, his average of 4.6 yards per carry puts him on the right track heading into a contract year.
Hunter's success in limited action can only leave us wondering what he could do with more opportunities, as expressed by Dylan DeSimone of CSNBayArea.com:
Again, I'm forced to ask myself, 'what could Kendall Hunter do with 20-25 carries a game?'— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone_80) July 5, 2014
James Brady of SB Nation believes Hunter could be a future starter in San Francisco, and it's tough to disagree. While Brady believes that Hunter will get his chances early on to establish himself as the primary backup, his opportunities may be limited to fully break away from the pack.
That prediction also falls in line with Steve Busichio of Niners Nation, who expects to see Hunter "in another uniform and possibly doing big things, come 2015."
No matter how things play out beyond this season, however, Hunter should be the easy choice for the win-now 49ers in 2014. The hype has yet to catch up, but Harbaugh's track record has been to stick with those he can trust.
This team is built for a run at the Super Bowl in the immediate future, leaving little time for a rookie learning curve on a run-heavy offense. A lot can happen in a long preseason, but do remember one thing as training camp gets underway.
Don't ever sleep on Kendall Hunter.
All statistics and accolades according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise attributed. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.