SFI. "They've assured me I'm not lost in the mix.""> SFI. "They've assured me I'm not lost in the mix."">

Hearst, Barlow have unique bond in backfield

Kevan Barlow was thisclose to being the featured tailback this season in one of the NFL's premier offenses. Then the 49ers retained the services of free agent Garrison Hearst in March with a six-year, $20 million deal. But don't think Barlow is upset he'll be sharing the ball with Hearst again in 2002. Quite the contrary. "Actually, I'm kind of happy he signed," Barlow said in an interview with <EM>SFI</EM>. "They've assured me I'm not lost in the mix."

It became obvious during the 2001 season that Barlow has star potential and was being groomed to be San Francisco's featured back of the future. But with the opportunity to sign Hearst for less than he might have received elsewhere on the open market, the Niners jumped at the chance to solidify the position with Hearst's veteran presence. It also was an instance of a player showing loyalty to an organization that had shown loyalty to him. And vice versa.

Coach Steve Mariucci has made it clear this spring that, "Right now, Garrison will be the starter, and Kevan will be the change-of-pace guy." But Barlow doesn't see Hearst's return as any step back in his path toward stardom.

"It didn't really bother me that Garrison signed," Barlow said. "I'm glad Garrison came back to finish his career in San Francisco. If the opportunity had arose that I had to step in and be the No. 1 guy, I would have took advantage, I would have been out there and did what I had to do. But now that Garrison's back, that's not going to stop me from going out there and trying to help that offense.

"After the way Garrison came back from his (ankle) injury, it was good and it was a class act that the organization resigned him after what he'd been through. It was the right move. And it's better it's Garrison (competing with Barlow) rather than somebody else coming in from the outside. But I'm going to go out there and compete and give it my all. Whatever the outcome is, so be it."

Said Mariucci, "(Barlow)'s going to be a good player for us. He, too, wants opportunities, which he deserves, and of course he's going to share it with Garrison, we know that."

During the team's April minicamp, Mariucci experimented by putting both Barlow and Hearst in the same backfield. The Niners will continue to look for ways to get both players on the field before the season begins.

"If I ask Garrison to play fullback and go hit Dick Butkus for five plays in a row, he might look at me like I'm crazy," Mariucci said. "But we will use them (together) for certain plays. We've done that before with Garrison and Terry Kirby. You'd like to have both athletes out there at the same time. And then we have to be creative as to how we're going to run the ball and throw the ball with that bunch. We wouldn't use one of them as a true blocking fullback - that's not their cup of tea. We would use them as a split-back set, or move them around or use them as receivers and do some creative things."

However the 49ers work it out, Barlow says the healthy competition won't affect a healthy relationship between he and Hearst.

"Garrison helped me out a lot last year and I'm pretty sure he'll help me out this year, too," Barlow said. "Garrison kind of took me under his wing and we had a good relationship since the very first time I met him. That helps a lot of things. I'm pretty sure there's some guys in the league that are competing for a job and they probably don't get along - they're just playing the game. But there's an honest relationship and friendship between Garrison and I."

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