The San Francisco 49ers come into training camp returning all 11 starters on arguably the league’s best defense, but bring a lot of new faces into the offense that was largely asked to manage games and not make mistakes last year. Despite all the new faces, veteran All Pro running back Frank Gore continues to set the tone offensively.
Gore has racked up over 10,000 yards from scrimmage in his seven seasons (7,625 yards rushing and 2,397 yards receiving), and now at age 29 he is working as hard as ever, leading by example.
“Frank likes to work,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He likes as much work as he can get. He is creative in finding ways to work. He is back on his routine of being here at 6:15 on the elliptical, just like he does in the regular season.”
Gore also likes to be the workhorse on the field and once again he led the 49ers in rushing last season, racking up 1,211 yards on the ground with 8 TDs. He was spelled effectively by rookie Kendall Hunter who had 473 yards rushing and provided a change of pace. Gore runs hard between the tackles, at 5-foot-9, 217 pounds and Hunter was more of an outside runner, at 5-foot-7, 199 pounds.
The running back corps has some interesting new additions this season. The 49ers picked up former New York Giant Brandon Jacobs in free agency, adding size and power as Jacobs is 6-foot-4, 264 pounds – over six inches taller and 40+ pounds heavier than the 49ers other backs.
The 49ers also added another burner via the NFL Draft, when they selected LaMichael James from Oregon in the second round. James is closer to the Gore / Hunter model at 5-foot-8, 194 pounds, but he adds tremendous speed. He was the second fastest running back at the NFL Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, and over his last two years with the Ducks, he racked up over 3,500 yards and 39 touchdowns.
So far, Gore has nothing but praise for the new additions. “They’re great dudes. They both work hard,” Gore said. “Brandon is very big and strong, LaMichael is very quick and fast.”
“They’re great guys,” he added. “That makes our team better.”
One other key piece that enhanced the 49ers running game last season was rookie fullback Bruce Miller. When Miller, a converted defensive end from Central Florida, starting picking up heavy playing time in week four, Gore responded with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Miller is a tenacious blocker who helps to open big holes for the 49ers rushing attack, and another full season playing offense will only help his game.
Gore will still lead the rushing attack, but all the additions seem to signal that the 49ers are going to split up the workload more.
The 49ers exceeded all expectations in 2011, going from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 and a couple of special teams plays short of the Super Bowl last year, with largely the same personnel. They made significantly more additions this offseason, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. They kept the defense intact and brought back quarterback Alex Smith while giving him several more targets to throw to (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins will all challenge Michael Crabtree for the top two receiving slots). Vernon Davis remains among the best tight ends in the league, and they added some very talented running backs to the Gore-Hunter team that led the 49ers offense last season.
With Harbaugh having a full training camp to work with the team for the first time (last season’s lockout-shortened offseason was his first), they figure to challenge for the Super Bowl with the best in the NFC.