Niners Backfield May be a Crowded Place

Reports that Hunter is on track to return will give 49ers a solid trio of Gore, Hunter and James -- with the possible addition of a power back in the draft

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Niners running back Kendall Hunter was having a strong season as Frank Gore's backup until being injured in November. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

    A recent report that running back Kendall Hunter is on schedule in his rehabilitation from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered last season is great news for the 49ers.

    The return of a healthy Hunter would give San Francisco terrific depth behind starter Frank Gore, especially now that LaMichael James proved what he can do after stepping in for Hunter late last season.

    Though Hunter and James both are small backs – Hunter is 5-foot-7 and 199 pounds and James is 5-foot-9 and 195 – both have shown the ability to make big plays.

    Last season, his second in the NFL, Hunter was having a strong year before his injury, which occurred on Nov. 25 against the Saints in New Orleans. He’d carried 72 times for 371 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, a yard more than his rookie season when he averaged 4.2 yards per rush on 112 attempts for 473 yards and two TDs.

    Hunter, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2011, had earned the role of primary backup to Gore and proved to be a great change-of-pace. His quick, darting style was a great complement to Gore, and his ability to get behind the big offensive line and find holes was excellent.

    Hunter had earned the respect of both head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

    “I just think his instincts, his vision, both have improved,” Harbaugh said of Hunter last season. “It just seems the feel, the experience is there and (he's) in tremendous shape, very strong, running with a lot of confidence.”

    Added Roman: “I’ve never seen Kendall Hunter have a bad day or a bad snap where he wasn’t totally tuned into football. Kendall’s becoming more of a well-rounded football player. … He gets better every day.”

    James, meanwhile, was unable to get playing time while Hunter was healthy. But after Hunter’s injury, James showed explosiveness in four regular-season games (averaging 4.6 yards on 27 carries) and through the postseason, when he carried 11 times for 65 yards (5.9 average) and a touchdown.

    If Hunter comes back healthy to join Gore and James, it will give Roman that many more options out of the pistol and read-option schemes that are more likely in 2013 with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.

    Hunter’s status was in doubt until just a few days ago, when the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch reported Hunter is “ahead of schedule.”

    “Four months after he sustained a torn Achilles, Kendall Hunter has resumed running and will be back for the start of training camp,” reported Branch, citing a source close to Hunter.

    Hunter and James offer a 1-2 combination of quickness, elusiveness and deceptive power. According to stats attributed to Pro Football Focus, Hunter forced 11 missed tackles in 2012 and had an elusiveness rating that was 45th in the NFL; James forced five missed tackles in a short span and had an elusive rating that was 25th in the league. In addition, James averaged more yards after contact (3.37) than either Gore or Hunter.

    The biggest challenge will be for the Niners to use all three backs to their best advantage, although James and Hunter also can be used on kick returns as well.

    And, though the trio is solid and running back hardly appears to be a need for the Niners, Branch also has reported the 49ers are interested in a bigger power back to add to the mix, having shown interest in Michigan State’s Le’Von Bell, who has been projected as a second- to fourth-round pick. Bell, at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, carried 382 times for 1,793 yards in the 2012 season and led all of football in yards after contact (922), according to Branch.

    The addition of a young power back might make competition for carries extra difficult in 2013, but might make sense, knowing the way the 49ers think, Branch reported.

    “Neither Hunter nor James are classic power-running backs,” he wrote. “And the 49ers are fond of smash-mouth running, which can include jumbo formations with seven offensive linemen.”

    Whoever the Niners decide to draft to add to the running back group, however, it appears Hunter is on schedule to be in the mix.