3 Burning Questions: Running back

There's a sense of urgency at running back for the 49ers this season. Tailback Kevan Barlow certainly feels it. So does fullback Fred Beasley. Ditto rookie Frank Gore, veterans Terry Jackson and Maurice Hicks and every other player trying to secure a job in the team's offensive backfield. While the new coaching regime seems willing to show some patience with growing pains in other areas of the roster, that's not the case at running back.

The 49ers are riding their hopes for a rapid return to respectability on their rushing game, where veteran talent is expected to show considerable improvement over 2004 performance while helping control the clock and take pressure of the team's developing passing game.

Or else.

Q: Or else what?

A: Or else people are going to see a shakeup. Barlow, after his disappointing 2004 season in his first year in the featured role, is being given another chance to be the bruising, breakaway power back that so tantalized previous team management in 2003. It was after that breakout season that Barlow was rewarded with a $20 million contract that tied him to the roster this season, for better or worse, because of the financial ramifications that would hit the team if the new regime cut him loose. That thought certainly has crossed the mind of coach Mike Nolan, who has openly criticized Barlow's effort from 2004. That issue aside, the team is sticking behind Barlow as its lead back, and he will be given every chance to succeed as the opening-day starter. It will be up to him to take the opportunity and run with it.

Q: How much of an opportunity are we talking about here?

A: A starting opportunity. That's about it. If Barlow doesn't start producing from the get-go, he'll immediately begin losing rotation carries to Gore, who's eager to make a rise to NFL prominence from the adversity he has faced throughout a tough life. He won't get there this season if Barlow can block his path, but the 49ers are going to go with the tailback who produces. It's really that simple. The competition has been keen at the position this summer, because Jackson and Hicks both want to get some playing time there, too, and both might be wondering a bit in the back of their minds about roster security now that Gore has arrived.

Q: What's the best-case scenario here?

A: Barlow holds onto his job, Gore pushes him and excels in a change-of-pace backup role, Beasley lays out linebackers in front of both, and everybody lives happily ever after. Barlow, coming to training camp in shape at a sturdy 230-plus pounds, certainly has flashed glimpses of special ability this summer, and new running backs coach Bishop Harris is around to stay on top of him. Barlow needs to focus on the task at hand to reach his potential, and that should be easy to do with a talent such as Gore showing he may be ready to supplant the starter at the first signs of a slip-up. Beasley also is eager to return to his form of 2003, when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time and gained universal recognition as the NFL's top fullback. The 49ers' return to a West Coast offensive system could make Barlow a star, but it also is a blessing for Beasley, who should see better use being made this season of his all-around skills. A happy Beasley/Barlow backfield could really make this offense click, and with Gore around to keep everybody looking over their shoulder, there should be dramatic improvement over San Francisco's No. 30 ranking in NFL rushing last year, the team's worst finish ever.

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