The running back position has become more and more expendable over recent years. It seems more and more like teams are gearing more toward using all their running backs, a running back by committee concept.
So this leaves the question, how important is Frank Gore to this team? And more importantly, how many games will he be able to contribute this year? In taking all of the injuries he has sustained over the years, and his fractured hip from last season in to consideration, would it be smart to get Kendall Hunter working in to the mix? And could Kendall Hunter fill the shoes of a home run hitter like Gore?
The answer to the last question is probably going to be no in almost every scenario. But the one thing Hunter has going for him is his youth. He is a very young and talented player. In 2008 and 2010, Hunter rushed for 1,500-plus yards in each of those seasons at Oklahoma State. He scored a total of 40 times, including his receiving touchdowns. Hunter was selected by Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke because of his ability to catch passes out of the back field.
Receiving the ball out of the backfield will be a staple in this new West Coast offense that the 49ers are installing this year. The running back position will be one of the main focuses and staples of this offense.
With that in mind, what will be the split in time between Gore, Hunter and even Anthony Dixon?
In order to keep Frank "The Tank" Gore healthy all year long, it could be wise to get Hunter and Dixon as many touches as possible in the preseason.
What we need to watch for is the following from Hunter:
- Ball security: At Oklahoma State, Hunter had problems in hanging on to the ball. His fumble percentage was 1.30. What this means is that he fumbled the ball one in every 70 carries, or one time every three games or so.
- Home run threat: We all know that Frank Gore can take it to the house on any given touch. He is still one of the 49ers' biggest assets in that way. Hunter will need to show this the whole season if he wants to ultimately be Gore's replacement.
- Case of the rookies: Sometimes rookies will make rookie mistakes; it comes with the territory. Hunter will need to show that he is very aware in picking up blitzes and reading the defense. If he can minimize the rookie mistakes, he will have a good shot at more playing time.
- Sliding out: Good NFL running backs almost always will slide off a block in the sneakiest way possible to set their quarterback with a check down option if all else fails. This can keep the defense honest and help the offensive line and quarterbacks out. When Hunter is in the game, blocking and sliding should be looked at.
- Catching the ball: This is going to be very important. In reviewing the performances of ex-Niner Glen Coffee, it seemed as though he had issues coming out of the back field to catch a screen or swing pass. Hunter will have to catch everything thrown his way, this assuming the ball is on target. Off target passes can be put on the quarterback.
- Scoring: This is what the game is all about. Scoring more points on the other team results in a win. If Hunter can get the ball in the end zone a few times this preseason, then we know he is potentially equipped to make the transition in to the NFL. It's something to build off of.
The Raiders will be a good measuring stick for the 49ers. They are not the Saints, so they do not have the same talent that the Saints have. However, they are still an NFL team. And they still have the potential to run the 49ers in to the ground.
Kendall Hunter may or may not have a career game. But in evaluating for the future and the possible replacement of Frank Gore, all of the factors above should be taken in to consideration. If Hunter can contribute in all those areas immediately, this could ultimately preserve the shelf life of a Frank Gore. And Gore's chances of returning to one of the elite running backs in the league will increase.