Running back Kendall Hunter (No. 32) played very well last season before his injury. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Because the NFL is a what-can-you-do-for-us-now league, Kendall Hunter is going to have to earn back his old job with the 49ers.
After tearing his Achilles’ tendon in a game last November, Hunter missed the rest of the season – including the Super Bowl – and watched rookie LaMichael James take over his backup job behind starting running back Frank Gore.
Now that Hunter is back on the practice field again with the 49ers, he’ll have to prove he still has what made him the Niners’ No. 2 back: the speed, quickness and toughness that allowed him to run both inside and outside in the San Francisco offense, even though he’s just 5-foot-7.
Hunter was activated Saturday from the physically-unable-to-perform list and resumed practicing with his teammates. When he joined the huddle for the first time Saturday, the members of the starting offensive unit gave him a round of applause, reported Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Though James played well in Hunter’s absence, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said Hunter is penciled in as No. 2 on the running back depth chart behind Gore for the time being.
“He is the No. 2 guy in terms of assignments,” Harbaugh told Bay Area media. “But whenever you’re coming off an injury, you’ve got to prove you’re back to 100 percent and that you’re better than other people.”
It’s probably unlikely Hunter will get to play in Friday night’s exhibition game in Kansas City against the Chiefs, but he’ll get a heavy dose of reps in practices this week to get him back in the flow of things.
“We all know what Kendall’s about,” Harbaugh said. “Things will go well for him. He’s smart. First things first, let’s go about getting him back to 100 percent.”
If Hunter can get back up to speed, it will give the 49ers a trio of effective backs.
Though Gore is now 30 – the age when even elite running backs start to lose their edge – he’s coming off consecutive seasons of 1,200-plus yards rushing. James had just 27 carries in the regular season and 11 in the postseason, but looked good, averaging 4.6 yards in the regular season and 5.9 in the postseason, including his first pro touchdown. And Hunter was averaging 5.2 yards per carry in 2012 before his injury.
To 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, having three solid backs with different skill sets is all good.
“We are big believers in a three-headed approach,” Baalke told the Chronicle this spring. “In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don’t become so predictable on game day.”
For Hunter, getting back to practice with his teammates is a special feeling.
It was a long, hard climb through surgery and rehab.
“It feels good to be back in the groove and play the game I love,” he said.