RUNNING BACKS (6) New: DeShaun Foster (7th Year) Returners: Thomas Clayton (1st Year), Frank Gore (4th Year), FB Zak Keasey (2nd Year), FB Moran Norris (8th Year) • Michael Robinson (3rd Year) Departed: RB Maurice Hicks
San Francisco's running game starts with Frank Gore, who has established himself as one of the top running backs in the NFL over the last two seasons after back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. He set franchise records with an NFC-leading 1,695 rushing yards and 312 carries in 2006 to earn a spot as the NFC starter in the Pro Bowl.
Last year, he backed that up with 1,102 yards despite battling an ankle injury that plagued him most of the campaign, suffering a broken hand in training camp and facing the death of his mother early in the season. Gore was able to overcome all of this adversity to rank fourth in the NFC with 1,538 total yards from scrimmage.
Martz is also excited about the possibility of utilizing Gore as a receiver out of the backfield. Gore has led the team in receptions the last two years, averaging 57 catches per season.
"Frank Gore is an elite player and one of the very best in the league," offered Martz, who has compared him to a former player he coached in Marshall Faulk. "Anytime you can take somebody like Frank and put him out on the perimeter, or get him one-on-one with someone that is what you want. You want to put Frank in an environment where he can get the ball away from the pack because his open field running is pretty special."
Veteran DeShaun Foster has been brought in to spell Gore at the running back position. Foster joins the club after six previous seasons in Carolina, where he became the Panthers' all-time rushing leader.
San Francisco also has emerging talent Michael Robinson, who made the switch to the position after playing quarterback in college at Penn State. Robinson was the club's second-leading rusher in 2007 and is also a core special teams player.
Thomas Clayton, a seventh-round draft pick in 2007, will be competing for a roster spot after spending all of last season on the 49ers' practice squad. He was the NFL's leading rusher for the 2007 preseason.
"I think it's going to be a very strong position," summarized Martz. "Any time you can have two accomplished running backs like Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster, you've got something pretty good to work with."
The team also returns its top two fullbacks from 2007 in Moran Norris and Zak Keasey, but that position may have a different look in Martz' 2008 offense.
"Our fullback position can come in the form of a true fullback like Moran or Zak, but you have to wear a lot of hats in our system at that spot," explained Martz. "You must be a dynamic blocker and have the ability to catch the ball, as well as be good in space."