Niners in a rush

If you thought you saw 49ers running backs coach Tim Lappano gushing about Kevan Barlow in this space earlier this spring, you should just hear him now. And the current raves aren't being reserved just for Barlow. Lappano is getting giddy about the Niners' running game in general, and he's not the only one. "Our plan right now is to lead the league in rushing," Lappano said. "That's our goal, and we're going to strive for that."

There certainly is plenty of basis for Lappano's optimism. Even though the Niners always have been known as a passing team, they ranked fifth in NFL rushing last season. And there are plenty of reasons to think they have the potential to be better than that in 2004.

The biggest reason, however, appears to be Barlow, who has come to camp in the best shape of his career and is chomping at the bit to become the team's workhorse thoroughbred after being handed the starting tailback job during the offseason.

At least, Lappano makes it sound that way. Publicly critical of Barlow during last season, Lappano has nothing but praise for him now, and the coach makes no secret that the attack will revolve around the fourth-year veteran.

"Kevan Barlow is the guy, and he's going until he's tired," Lappano said. "There is no rotation with Kevan. He's going to carry us. I think he wants it. He's taken over, and he knows his time is now, and he's willing to take the responsibility."

Then, Lappano went on.

"I think Kevan Barlow can be a Pro Bowl running back, I really do," Lappano said. "He's got size, he's got tremendous feet, he runs with power, he can make you miss, he can catch the ball, and he's come a long way in blocking. And his work ethic has been really good, it really has. If you look at his body right now, he's not packing any stomach, and you can tell. He is in good condition. He got a lot stronger. He came in and worked hard in the spring, worked hard in the summer and he's working hard out here right now."

Barlow impressed the team with his offseason training commitment, when he focused on cross-training methods to hone his skills and fine-tune his body. He even took up kick boxing after hearing that skill helped push Baltimore's Jamal Lewis to his 2,000-yard rushing season last year.

"I tried to do something different," Barlow said. "Running up hills, riding a bike, doing a lot of swimming, doing basketball, doing different things to get in shape. Now I'm good to go. I'm a little bit leaner than last year and I'm excited."

Barlow has shed 10 pounds since training camp last year and now is a quicker, shiftier version of a power tailback at 230 pounds. He's also more focused on his role and the major responsibilities he'll have in the offense.

"Now I'm labeled the starter, and I'm more at ease with myself, so I can go out there and play my game," Barlow said. "I'm looking forward to that challenge. We're known for throwing the ball, and it's going to be a balanced attack. But if we have to run it, I'm willing to run the ball as many times as it takes."

Like last year – when he rushed for 433 yards in December to finish sixth among NFC rushing leaders with 1,024 yards – Barlow will have Pro Bowler Fred Beasley paving the way in front of him. Beasley – perhaps the NFL's best blocking fullback – also may be given more touches since Barlow will be carrying the load at tailback instead of sharing carries with Hearst.

The Niners also are excited about what they have going up front on their offensive line, as far as the running game goes. With strong run-blocker Kwame Harris in place of Derrick Deese at left tackle, a healthy Jeremy Newberry primed for another big season at center, and athletic Justin Smiley added to the mix at guard, Lappano says the Niners actually could have a better run-blocking line in front of his backs despite the loss of 2003 starters Deese and Ron Stone.

"We did a great job running the football (last year), so I'm not going to spout on too much here," Lappano said. "But I think we're more athletic up front. And we obviously haven't lost anything in the backfield. I really think we have a chance to be more athletic and do more things (in the run game) than we did a year ago."

Even the leaders of San Francisco's passing attack – which always has led the way for the Niners – seem to be going along with the idea.

"It's going to be our strength, and if you can run the ball, it's going to open everything up," quarterback Tim Rattay said. "I think that's key. We're definitely going to start with the run. That's the key to being a good team in the NFL."

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