Training camp battleground: Running back

One of the primary reasons Kevan Barlow was a bust last year in his first season as the 49ers' featured tailback is that the team didn't have anybody behind him good enough to take his starting job. Thus, there was no urgency once things began to go wrong and then kept getting worse. That won't be the case this year with Frank Gore on the scene, as Barlow will either be pushed to higher performance by the determined rookie or pushed by him onto the bench.

After holding up respectably and gaining the new coaching regime's confidence with a solid spring, Barlow retained his status as The Man at tailback, a rank he was anointed with last year as soon as he signed a $20 million deal during the offseason.

But his hold on that standing is much more tenuous than it was a year ago after his hugely disappointing 2004 season, when Barlow statistically was one of the least productive starting running backs in the NFL.

The 49ers used a high draft pick – the first selection of the third round – to draft Gore, and that's with the intention he'll come in and immediately begin to earn his share of carries in the offense, the quantity of which will be determined by productivity and performance of both he and Barlow – or the lack thereof.

Barlow wasn't ready to be a No. 1 back when he was handed the role last year, even though he'd displayed every indication he was during a breakout 2003 season when he gained 1,024 yards on just 201 carries (a 5.1 average) despite only starting four games. When the line in front of him struggled and the blocking imploded, he didn't show much toughness taking hits or breaking tackles.

Carrying the ball 43 more times than he did in 2003, he finished with 202 fewer yards (244 for 822, a 3.4 average), and it will have to be different this season. He'll be watching from the sidelines as somebody else carries the ball if that kind of thing extends too far into 2004.

The thing is, Barlow still has the ability and potential he showed in 2003, and it's too early to give up on that, particularly considering the other elements that went into a 2004 season that fell short in many areas. The power rushing game the Niners envision could be a good fit for the 235-pound Barlow and be a better situation in which for him to succeed and gain back his confidence.

The same is true for Gore, whose shifty, low-to-the-ground power style was intriguing during the spring. The rookie also is hungry to play and hungry to succeed after overcoming hardship for him and his family most of his life. If he's handed an opportunity to show his stuff, he's going to do it. He could earn playing time with a strong preseason, when he'll be getting a lot of carries and chances to shine.

The Niners are looking for a tandem role from the two backs, but one will emerge as the regular back and leading charge in the offense.

That figures to be Barlow, but he can't go through any extended stretches when he averages two yards a carry like he did last year. And it would be nice if it is Barlow, so Gore can be brought along as a change-of-pace back to give him time to develop.

Maurice Hicks also is back, and he is what he is, a guy that offers some quickness but not enough size to hold up in an extended role. Which is fine here, since he'll be trying to make the team as the No. 3 tailback, which probably also would mean he'd be returning kickoffs, since veteran Terry Jackson also is coming back and offers more versatility.

Niners Digest Top Stories