Action Jackson

The 49ers are enamored with Kevan Barlow, and they like what they see in Jamal Robertson. But as good as those two young players have looked in the backfield this spring, there's another guy who has pushed his way into the team's plans at tailback. When asked how S.F.'s backfield situation compares to last year, when the Niners had Garrison Hearst as the starter with Barlow and Robertson in reserve, running backs coach Tim Lappano said, "I'm liking it because of the emergence of Terry Jackson."

While Barlow shined consistently during the spring in his new role as the featured starter, and Robertson came on strong in June to keep his grip on the backup role, Jackson was perhaps the team's most pleasant surprise at running back with his smooth moves, fine hands and steady performance.

"The guy that has really jumped out is Terry Jackson," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's been hurt ever since I've been here. I've never seen him 100 percent. He's healthy now. He gives us some options."

Jackson finally appears fully recovered after tearing knee ligaments in an October game against Seattle in 2002, an injury that ended his season. Jackson still was rehabilitating the knee when the Niners' new coaching regime took over last spring, but - after missing part of training camp while continuing his recovery - Jackson returned to become the special teams terror he'd been throughout his career.

Jackson led the Niners with 22 special teams tackles last season and forced two fumbles on those units. It was the third time since 1999 that he led the team's specialty units in tackles and the fourth time he was either first or second on the team in that department.

But he did not touch the football once on offense during the season.

With Jackson still recovering from the knee, and the tailback position strong with Hearst, Barlow and a rising Robertson, the Niners did not give Jackson much consideration in their offensive plans in 2003.

It has been different this spring, when Jackson was given increasing opportunities after coaches liked what they saw with the ball in his hands.

"For the first time since I've been here, he's healthy, and he's everything that they told me," Lappano said. "I didn't see that early when I first came here (in 2003) because Terry was hurt. He was hurt bad. He could hardly run."

But Jackson has looked as swift and skillful as ever this spring. The team's backup fullback his first five years in the league, when he weighed in the 230-pound range, Jackson is leaner and quicker and has made a complete shift to tailback, though he's still a perfect fit for a role in one-back formations, where the Niners used Jackson often as a change-of-pace back in 2001.

"Terry is kind of a guy that does it all, I guess is probably the best way to put it," Erickson said.

Even though Hearst and Barlow combined for 377 carries, 1,718 yards rushing and 63 receptions in 2001, Jackson still found enough backfield time to rush for a career-high 138 yards on just 22 carries, a 6.3 average, and had 12 receptions, two of which he turned into touchdowns.

The Niners envision similar opportunities for him in 2004.

"Now I'm seeing Terry at full speed," Lappano said, "and he's a nifty runner. He's got great vision, he can run a route, he's got great hands. He's such a veteran. He knows how to block, he knows who to block. He's a complete player. With his emergence, and if he can stay healthy, he'll play. He'll take some of the load off Kevan and Jamal."

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