The defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers will open training camp at the end of the month. But before the pads come on and the competition for 53 coveted roster spots begin, 49ers.com will preview the storylines to track for each position group on the team. San Francisco's play-making stable of running backs come into focus first in our "49ers Camp Preview" series.
San Francisco went from having the No. 8 rushing attack in 2011 to the league's No. 4 ground game in 2012. The production figures to remain high once again as the 2013 season approaches. Last year, the 49ers totaled 2,491 rushing yards and 17 rushing scores in Greg Roman's second season as the team's offensive coordinator. The improved numbers can be attributed first and foremost to the consistent performances of Frank Gore. San Francisco's all-time leader in carries (1,911), rushing yards (8,839) and rushing touchdowns (51) earned his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl and maintained his status as one of the league's toughest players to tackle. Gore was also complemented on the field by a bevy of hard-running teammates. Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and quarterback Colin Kaepernick all picked up significant yardage on the ground on the 49ers road to Super Bowl XLVII.
Gore rushed for 1,214 yards to go along with eight rushing scores in the regular season. In the postseason, Gore added 319 rushing yards and four touchdowns, including two crucial rushing touchdowns in the team's NFC Championship Game win over the Atlanta Falcons. In that game, special teams contributor Anthony Dixon converted a crucial 3rd-and-1 which led to the game-winning touchdown.
Behind Gore, the focal point of the ground game, the 49ers received key production from Hunter, a second-year player who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 12 of the regular season. Hunter picked up 371 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns prior to an Achilles injury. He also averaged 5.2 yards per carry, the sixth-best average in the NFL at the time of his injury. Following Hunter's setback, James, the team's second-round draft pick in 2012, asserted himself late in the regular season and proved to be a valued contributor in the 49ers creative offensive system. James worked perfectly alongside Kaepernick in the team's "Pistol" offensive attack.
San Francisco's success on the ground can mostly be attributed to a combination of the talented runners and mauling blockers on the offensive line. Fullback Bruce Miller also deserves much of the credit for the team's sustained success in the running game. Miller, a converted defensive end in college, continued to thrive as a lead blocker for Gore, Hunter, James and company.
RETURNERS: Frank Gore (ninth season), Bruce Miller (third season), Kendall Hunter (third season), LaMichael James (second season), Jewel Hampton (second season) and Anthony Dixon (fourth season). NEWCOMERS: Marcus Lattimore (fourth-round pick, South Carolina), D.J. Harper (undrafted, Boise State) and Jason Schepler (undrafted, Northern Illinois).
The group should benefit from another offseason in Roman's diverse running system. The 49ers have maintained their top-flight rushing attack while adding a downfield passing game with Kaepernick under center. Gore has spoken positively about his hunger to produce at the age of 30 and feels like Kaepernick's dual-threat ability will open up running lanes in between the hashmarks. Hunter, meanwhile, has rehabbed vigorously to the point where he was sprinting and cutting during offseason workouts. He has yet to join the team for practice, but is close to returning to action. Lattimore, the popular rookie out of South Carolina, continued to rehab his own knee injury in the offseason and has been told to take a cautious approach to his return to the field. The 49ers appear to have strong depth at the running back position and will look to develop Lattimore has another do-it-all running back. However, the timetable for his 49ers debut remains to be seen.
When working in tandem, Gore and Hunter have become one of the NFL's most formidable one-two punches. The 49ers are 20-1-1 when the duo combines for 20 or more carries in a game.
"With a new offense I think Kap freed me up a lot. I'll be fine this year."
-Gore on his expectations for this coming season.