A Gore-y message

The 49ers sent a message to mercurial tailback Kevan Barlow with their first third-round pick Saturday, and it will be delivered by University of Miami product Frank Gore. "I know Kevan Barlow, he's a pretty good back," Gore said. "I don't doubt no man. I'm going to respect him and I'm going to try to learn from him. But I'm also going to try to come in and compete to be the starting guy, you know? I'm going to come there and play off the bat right now."

The Niners used the No. 65 overall pick to grab Gore and, while coach Mike Nolan says the starting tailback position still belongs to Barlow, it is pretty well understood that it won't for long if he can't withstand a heated challenge from Gore, a power back who finally came into his own last year as a junior after being hampered the previous two seasons with serious knee injuries.

But the knees are fine now, both Gore and 49ers doctors said, and his best days still are ahead of him.

He is a back of starting quality, and Barlow better watch out.

"Kevan is our starting back," Nolan said. "That needs to be known. But, I believe that where things start, where they end up, we'll let the players decide that. I would expect (Gore) to compete. … Yes, he will."

Gore isn't being brought in just for third-down duties as a rookie, either. Nolan envisions a role where he shares carries with Barlow, perhaps as Barlow and Garrison Hearst used to do with the 49ers from 2001-2003.

Finally, after a breakout season amid that arrangement in 2003, Barlow earned the full-time starting role and the 49ers released Hearst. But Barlow bombed as the starter last year, rushing for only 822 yards on 244 carries and producing the lowest average per carry of any starting running back in the NFL.

It was a poor season all-around season for Barlow, who seemed to lose confidence as the season progressed and didn't possess the hard-charging, tackle-breaking ability he displayed in previous years. He also seemed to lose some supporters in the locker room with some ill-advised comments regarding the performance of teammates.

But now he has a legitimate rival to push him. After receiving a $6.5 million bonus in March, it's time for Barlow to put up or shut up.

That isn't Nolan's only intention for bringing in Gore. Nolan coached in Baltimore the past four seasons, where he saw Jamal Lewis rush for more than 2,000 yards in 2003. Even then, Nolan said, Lewis barely played more than half the team's offensive snaps. Nolan expects Gore to have a significant role in the team's offense and bring a new dimension to the attack.

"As we all know, running backs can't take the full load. The backs don't take all the snaps," Nolan said. "My personal experience of being on good teams is having (two) running backs to share the load. The good thing about it is, in that situation, what I'm really looking forward to is each player is going to make the other player better."

And if Barlow doesn't get better with Gore pushing behind him? Well, the possibility exists Gore could steal carries away from the incumbent and earn himself more of a featured role.

"They'll earn that as they go on," Nolan said. "We'll see where that stands. We want to have freshness in a back. It was pretty neat seeing that big guy (Gore) running over people fresh in the third and fourth quarter, especially when he gets to the second level were the linebackers and (defensive backs) are. We've strengthened ourselves with this pick."

And at the very least, also strengthened Barlow's questionable resolve.


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