Training camp battleground: Tailback

Kevan Barlow had his shot, and now it is Frank Gore's time. Or is it? While many are ready to ordain Gore as the next big thing at tailback for the 49ers, it's technically not even his job yet. The starting role still belongs to Barlow entering training camp, and the veteran who once showed such potential and promise at the position might put up a tougher fight to hold onto it than some expect.

Or then again, maybe not.

Barlow always has been something of an enigmatic talent since joining the Niners as their third-round draft pick in 2001. He no doubt has the charges to be a quality NFL running back. He proved that during his breakout season in 2003, which convinced the previous 49ers regime to reward him with a five-year, $20 million deal in 2004 to be the team's featured back of the present and immediate future.

But Barlow has not lived up to the worth of that deal in the past two seasons, showing hesitation in hitting holes and lacking the tackle-breaking propensity he displayed earlier in his career. A good guy at heart who also has the inclination to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, Barlow has lacked the stoic character that most often needs to go along with such an important role on a NFL team.

The arrival of Gore – the 49ers' third-round selection in 2005 – was intended to push Barlow and give him legitimate competition for the starting job. But instead of that propelling him to higher performance, Barlow instead publicly suggested the team might want to turn to Gore when Barlow and San Francisco's running game began running into problems early last season.

Barlow – after an 822-yard season in 2004 during which his 3.4 average was among the worst of all starting NFL running backs – showed legitimate spark near midseason last year when he rushed for 99 yards against Indianapolis and a season-high 101 yards two games later against a tough Tampa Bay defense.

But over San Francisco's final nine games – three of which Barlow missed with injuries and the last of which he missed on injured reserve – Barlow gained just 156 yards on 71 carries in the five games he played, averaging only 2.2 yards a carry and again raising questions whether he's the right man for the featured job.

That fade to the finish left Barlow with a season total of 576 yards rushing – the second-lowest of his career – and a 3.3 average that was even worse than the year before.

Those weak numbers could not all be attributed to Barlow. The offense – particular the passing game – floundered around him, and a transitional line had trouble opening holes in front of him. He also had some big runs nullified by penalty, and while his production suffered, he ingratiated himself with the new coaching staff by working hard and displaying more maturity and a team-first mentality.

Meanwhile, Gore started slowly in his rookie season – just 78 yards on 17 carries in his first four games – before slowly earning more of Barlow's carries as the season progressed. Gore's 72-yard bolt to paydirt against Washington in Week 7 was a real eye opener, and during the remainder of the season he consistently proved himself as one of NFL's top rookie running backs.

Playing with a simmering intensity and hitting the hole quick and hard, Gore showed an ability to move the pile and churn out extra yardage while also displaying dangerous breakaway burst when given some open space. He finished the season with two touchdowns rushing in Week 16 against St. Louis and a career-high 108 yards rushing in the season finale against Houston to become the first rookie in 15 seasons to lead the 49ers in rushing.

With 608 yards on 127 carries, Gore gained the most yards rushing by a 49ers rookie since Roger Craig in 1983. That total also placed him third among all 2005 rookie rushers behind Tampa Bay's Cadillac Williams (1,178 yards) and Miami's Ronnie Brown (907) – two first-round selections who were among the top five overall picks in the 2005 draft.

Gore's 4.8 average also was the best among any NFL rookie with more than 55 carries, and that statistic perhaps was the best indication of his consistency and productivity, particularly considering the way the rest of the league's worst offense flopped its way through the season.

But Gore also experienced injury problems – he missed two games in late November – and that's the biggest asterisk that goes next to his name when observers discuss whether Gore can become a top-flight NFL running back.

He definitely has the skills. But at 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, Gore looks even smaller than he really is and may not have the size to endure the considerable wear and tear required of a featured back. He already has had major surgery on both his knees – a fact that played heavily in Gore still being around for the 49ers to grab him at the top of the third round – and he underwent surgery earlier this year to repair torn labrums in both of his shoulders, injuries that he played with during the 2005 season.

The 49ers took it easy with both Gore and Barlow during spring drills, giving the team an opportunity to get a longer look at veterans Maurice Hicks and Terry Jackson and fourth-round draft pick Michael Robinson in the tailback/running back role.

But come July 28 when training camp practices begin, the heat is on. And, while each of the players mentioned above could factor in some way at the position, it is definitely a helmet-to-helmet duel between Gore and Barlow for the starting/featured role.

Barlow, who seemed perfectly willing to share carries with Gore as the season progressed and the Niners crept toward another dismal season last year, sounded refreshed during the offseason with a new vigor to take into the summer.

"Without a doubt, I had a lot better season (in 2005) than I had in the past and I had a lot better coaching as well," Barlow said. "Putting all cockiness and arrogance aside, I feel like I'm in my prime, physically and mentally. I think I'm a better person and a better player. I do feel like I'm the starter and I'm going to have an outstanding year. I'm going to produce. This is going to be a great year for me."

Of course, we've heard these kinds of things before from Barlow during previous springs and summers. They aren't things we have heard yet from Gore, who is a man of few words who appears to disdain discussing himself or his situation with the media. He prefers to do his talking on the field.

Barlow has good speed and a clear advantage with his optimum size for the position, but Gore appears to play harder with more aggression and instincts. Barlow will have to make better use of his physical attributes and play closer to his potential this summer, or else Gore will run right by him on the depth chart during the preseason.

Which is what a lot of educated observers expect Gore will. But that kind of thinking comes with that dreaded asterisk.

"If it weren't for the injuries and the injury issue, Gore would be hands down the starter out there (in San Francisco)," one NFC player personnel director says. "He has the speed, quickness, and ability in the passing game to be an outstanding back. The problem is his durability. You just don't know when he is going to break."

Just like the 49ers don't really know exactly what kind of Barlow will show up at training camp. To be sure, it will have to be a better Barlow to prevent Gore from taking away a job Barlow has held since the end of the 2003 season.

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