"That's a big word," Mariucci responded. "He's fighting for a job on the team just like everybody else. I guess there's no guarantees. But he's certainly making a run at it and doing the very best he can and trying."
Hearst - attempting a comeback from a career-threatening ankle injury after a two-year layoff - started Saturday's 28-18 loss to the Seahawks and gained 35 yards on nine carries. That raised his total in three preseason games to 71 yards on 20 carries, a 3.6 average.
Hearst has appeared a bit rusty as he attempts to regain his form of 1998, when he rushed for a team-record 1,570 yards before injuring his ankle in a playoff game at the end of that season.
Smith, San Francisco's fifth-round draft pick in 2000, and Barlow, a third-round pick this year, both missed the first two preseason games with injuries. But after Hearst played the first half Saturday, Smith rushed for 29 yards on six carries - a 4.8 average - in the third quarter. Barlow then took over in the final period and looked very impressive while gaining 66 yards on 13 carries (5.1 average) and scoring San Francisco's final touchdown.
Hearst, after restructuring his contract earlier this year, is scheduled to make the veteran's minimum of $477,000 this season. The salary cap-strapped Niners are less than $200,000 under the cap and may need to shave some larger salaries when they finalize their 53-man roster on Sept. 2. They must cut their roster from 75 players to 65 by Tuesday.
Second-year player Jonas Lewis also is in the mix at tailback. Lewis was held out Saturday with a sore Achilles, but he still leads the Niners in preseason rushing with 92 yards on 16 carries.