Can Barlow hold on?

Kevin Barlow has grown up. And bulked up, while also slimming down. The 49ers' starting tailback often gave an appearance of the complete package this spring, when he also developed a reputation as one of the team's hardest workers. But there still are a few red flags that could hold Barlow back as he swings for stardom in his first full season as a featured back. "He's aware of that, and we're working on it," running backs coach Tim Lappano said. "We're coaching him hard on that every day."

As far as carrying the load at running back, Barlow is ready. Stronger now from regular weight training even though he has slimmed down to about 230 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, there are few lingering questions that he can succeed in the No. 1 rushing role with the Niners.

"The running part? Leave him alone," Lappano said. "He can run, he can catch and he can run around."

It's not the running part that has some people concerned. It's the holding-onto-the-ball part.

Last year, in just 201 carries, Barlow fumbled five times. At least two of those bobbles were killers, perhaps costing the 49ers a victory in their 41-38 loss at Cincinnati in December. Seven NFL running backs had more fumbles than Barlow, but six of those players lugged the football at least 330 times.

There is a notion that Barlow has a fumbling problem. It followed him into the NFL in 2001, and it is something that will follow him around this season until he disprove it.

"Ball leverage is the most important thing right now that he has to work on," Lappano said. "We watch film every day. We make sure any time it's out wide, even if he doesn't fumble it, we correct that, so he's really aware of that."

"I was real proud of him after that Cincy game," Lappano continued. "He could have laid down after that Cincy game where he laid the ball on the ground and cost the team dearly. But (the next week) he came into a cold situation in Philadelphia and ran for over 150 yards and played hard and never laid it on the ground again. I was worried at the time. I was interested to see what was going to happen, how he'd respond. He overcame that, and that has carried over (to the spring). That's something we talk about with all the running backs, not just Kevan, but all of them."

The Niners also had Barlow concentrating this spring on his blocking. That also is a perceived weakness for Barlow in an area where his predecessor, Garrison Hearst, was considered one of the best blocking backs in the NFL.

But, in more than 100 snaps this spring where Barlow had particular blocking assignments, Lappano said "he probably had only one or two busts."

"So we're really pleased," Lappano said. "He still needs to make sure his technique is perfect when he strikes the defender on the blitz. But he knows right now who to block. He's got that down. He understands the keys. He knows who he's going to now, which early in his career he struggled on. But now he's been around and seen enough and learned enough. He knows how to get his guy, now he just has to sit up and use his technique. (Blocking and ball leverage), those two things right now are basically all he needs to do."

Because otherwise, Lappano said, Barlow is ready to explode onto the NFL scene this year as one of the league's elite backs. Those 201 carries last year also produced 1,024 yards rushing for Barlow, including a 5.1 average, which left him sixth among the NFC's leading rushers even though he started just four games.

"Right now, he sees himself as a leader on this football team and I think it's great," Lappano said. "And I think he should be, and I think he can be. He's talented. Nobody's ever questioned his talent. He's got a lot of ability. It won't be surprising to see him have a tremendous season."

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