Better Barlow ready for big-time

"I realize God gave me a gift to play football and go out there and excel and be one of the top elite," Kevan Barlow said after practice at 49ers training camp. If Barlow sounds like a guy who's ready for the big-time, he is. But that time still might have to wait for the talented third-year tailback, who continues to find himself working behind starter Garrison Hearst in the Niners' crowded backfield.

Barlow wrinkled his lip and wore an expression of chagrin when the questions started coming about him taking over for Hearst as the starter. Barlow has heard them before, and his patience is wearing a little thin.

But at the same time, Barlow also knows that time isn't far away.

"I feel like I'm getting closer, a lot closer than I was in the past," he said.

Barlow has put his impressive package of size, speed and skill on display daily during Niners' camp. The only obstacle between Barlow reaching his potential - and possible stardom - in the Niners' dynamic offense remains Hearst, who has his own set of strengths and intangibles that he brings to the team. And Hearst isn't budging.

But the gap between Hearst and Barlow is growing increasingly thin. The duo has shared carries since Barlow joined the team as a third-round draft pick in 2001, with Hearst getting the bulk of the load. That load figures to be distributed much more evenly this season.

"Right now, we're just going to continue where it left off," Niners running backs coach Tim Lappano said. "But we're definitely going to get Kevan in the football game a little bit more. He needs a few more touches than he had a year ago, and we'll see what happens. He's definitely a playmaker, and you've got to get your best guys the ball."

Lappano is in his first year with the 49ers, as are several assistants on new head coach Dennis Erickson's staff. It didn't take Lappano long to realize Barlow is one of those "best guys."

"Kevan Barlow has so much talent it's almost scary," Lappano said. "He's got a lot of natural ability. He's got great size and strength, runs through arm tackles, has the ability to make you miss in the open field. He's just starting to peak at the right time. I think his future looks real bright."

Barlow believes his future is now. He remained in the Bay Area during the offseason to work with a trainer who specializes in speed work and technique. He reported to camp at 230 pounds - seven pounds lighter than at this time last year. After finishing 18th in the NFC last season with 675 yards rushing on 145 carries, a 4.7 average, Barlow is ready for an increased role.

"An individual goal I'm setting is to be the starter," Barlow said. "If you get that position, then everything else comes into place. If anybody says they don't want to start, they're lying. I'm a competitive person. For me to be my best, I want to go out and start.

"I mean, I'm going out there just doing everything I can do, trying to better myself as a player. If the coaches feel as though I should play more, then that's how it will be. If they want me to be a role player like they wanted me to do last year, then so be it, as long as we win games."

Hearst, an 11th-year veteran who made the Pro Bowl in 2001, also has looked strong in camp. For now, he continues to stave off Barlow's challenges for the starting role. Hearst led the Niners with 972 yards rushing on 215 carries last year. In 2001, he had 1,206 yards rushing on 252 carries while Barlow rushed for 512 yards on 125 carries as a rookie.

Barlow now is considered Hearst's equal as a rusher. Hearst's experience and exceptional blocking ability continue to endear him to San Francisco coaches, but Barlow also is gaining in those areas.

"You have to be good in every area," Erickson said. "We obviously know Kevan's an outstanding runner. Now he has to become the guy that we can count on protection-wise. Let's face it, Kevan's a real good football player. He's just got to be able to do everything, which he's getting better at all the time."

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