Gore taking over as 49ers' lead rusher?

Frank Gore is the quiet type, but he perked right up earlier this week when SFI asked what it would mean to him to finish his debut NFL season as the first rookie in 15 years to lead the 49ers in rushing. "I didn't really know that," Gore said in his low-tone style. Then, his face brightened. "But I know I'd like it," he continued. "To be the leading rusher on my team, that would be a good thing." And a good indication that the torch has been passed to Gore as the 49ers' lead back of the future.

Gore has started only one game so far in his NFL career, and he might not even start Sunday's season finale against the Houston Texans, since coach Mike Nolan is keeping the Texans guessing by saying it will be a game-time decision whether Gore or Maurice Hicks starts for the 49ers at tailback.

But whether he starts the game or not, Gore will play as much – if not more – than Hicks, and he has a legitimate shot at becoming the first rookie to finish a season as San Francisco's leading rusher since Dexter Carter turned the trick in 1990.

Gore needs 82 yards on the ground against the Texans to overtake veteran Kevan Barlow and finish as the Niners' top rusher of 2006. That's saying something, since the 49ers brought their third-round pick along slowly this season by design and Gore has carried the ball more than 10 times in a game just twice this season.

He also missed two games in November due to injury, but a recent stretch of strong efforts after Barlow went to the bench with a knee injury has put Gore in position to be just the fourth rookie to lead the team in rushing since the 49ers joined the NFL in 1950.

In his only start of the season, Gore rushed for 79 yards on a career-high 19 carries two weeks ago against the playoff-bound Jacksonville Jaguars, then – despite playing with a shoulder injury that will require surgery in the offseason – he came back last week to rush for 68 yards and a career-high two touchdowns to spark a 24-20 upset of the St. Louis Rams.

The late surge has Gore fifth among all rookie running backs with 500 yards on 102 carries, a 4.9 average that leads each of the four rookies ahead of him. Barlow, San Francisco's leading rusher the past two seasons, finished with 581 yards on 176 carries this year.

Gore has rushed for more than 79 yards in a game just once this season – he had a season-high 89 yards at Washington in October, including an explosive 72-yard touchdown run – but it wouldn't be surprising to see the 49ers feed him the ball as Sunday's game progresses to get him the yards he needs to join Carter (460 yards in 1990), Ken Willard (778 in 1965) and Wilbur Jackson (705 in 1974) among San Francisco's rookie rushing leaders. "I wish those 80 yards would take him over 1,000," coach Mike Nolan said when SFI asked if he'd like to see Gore finish as the team's 2006 rushing leader. "I'd love to see (Gore lead the team)."

Though Nolan continues to state that he has been pleased with Barlow's development this year, and while he also declines to commit to Gore as the team's starting tailback in 2006, it's clear that the coach has been pleased with Gore and what he brings to the 49ers.

"Frank's a good back," Nolan said. "I thought last week was a great example of his ability to run. Even in the Washington game, when he took that long one, he's had some pretty exciting runs throughout. He's one of those guys that when he hits the line, it's like ‘Oh, I think it's a yard,' then, ‘Oh wait. It's two or three or four.' That's pretty good. He's exciting to watch. He's done a very good job, and I'm really pleased we've got him. He's all football."

As such, Gore doesn't spend much time worrying about statistics, particularly in this dismal rebuilding season for a 3-12 team. Or, for that matter, worrying about whether he'll be the starter sooner rather than later in the future.

But Gore had to admit that passing Barlow this week and putting his name among San Francisco's yearly leaders would rate as something of a special accomplishment.

"Especially coming from the draft as a third-round pick and seeing a lot of other backs go in front of me," said Gore, who left the University of Miami early last year after his junior season. "That shows my team, teammates and coaches that most every time I've got an opportunity, I've tried my best to take advantage of it. I want to keep in everybody's mind that every time I get a chance that I'm going to try my best to do whatever it takes to help us win."

While he's doing that, Gore is keeping this in everybody's mind, too: He's the future at tailback for the 49ers, and the future has arrived.


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