Gore staking his claim at tailback

As Frank Gore blasts through holes at 49ers training camp and buckles defenders in the open field with a variety of swift and elusive moves, he looks every bit like The Man at tailback and a player this offense can't afford to keep off the field. But Kevan Barlow doesn't look so bad either, and he's still holding down the starting job. That status, however, looks more tentative as each day passes.

Gore has been one of the early stars of summer camp, hitting creases with authority, showing great power and surge and - to top it off - terrific explosiveness in the open field. He looks like a guy who can't and won't be denied.

But even though he became the first rookie in 15 years to lead the 49ers in rushing last season, Gore officially remains a second-stringer as the Niners hit the heart of their first summer week in pads.

What gives?

Well, coach Mike Nolan explains, who's running with which unit at this point of camp really doesn't tell much about who will be the featured back when this heated competition at tailback comes to a close in early September.

"I'm wide open," Nolan said Tuesday. "I'm not closed at all. I'd be foolish. There's every reason not to be."

So the No. 1 status Barlow's enjoying now for the third consecutive summer really is just a starting point for the 2006 pecking order at the position, not necessarily an indication where things will end up when the games start counting.

"We have to structure practices," Nolan said. "Kevan Barlow is the first-team back and Frank Gore is behind him and (Maurice) Hicks is behind him. That's where it stands right now. Every day is a new day and I kind of like it. It'll take it's shape as it's supposed to as we go, and that's the exciting thing about it."

It already has taken shape. While Barlow has slimmed down about 10 pounds from last year and looks leaner and maybe even a little meaner, Gore is stealing the show when he has the ball in his hands. Nolan may be waiting until later in the year to pass the torch, but what's happening on the field says Gore already is carrying it.

Barlow's not oblivious to that. But after sharing carries with veteran Garrison Hearst during his first three NFL seasons before breaking out with a career-high 1,024-yard season and 5.1 average in 2003, Barlow realizes that it can take two backs to carry the load on this team, and he knows he'll have a part in that equation.

"I welcome the competition with open arms," Barlow said. "It's going to make me a better player. That's going to make us a better team. Running back by committee or running back that carries the load - it doesn't matter to me. That's coach Nolan's decision.

"I know I'm penciled in as the starter. I feel like I should be the starter, no question. But I don't know what's written in ink and what is written in pencil. Frank is a good player and Mo is a good player. Mo is going to push us and Frank is going to push me. I'm going to push Frank and it's all going to benefit us at the end of the day. I welcome the competition, and I know I'm going to go out there and give it my all for these guys."

In his five NFL seasons, Barlow already has climbed to No. 7 on San Francisco's chart of all-time leading rushers with 3,614 yards. But - in part due to factors that certainly aren't all his fault - he averaged just 3.4 yards a carry in his first year as the featured back in 2004, then sank to a career low with a 3.3 average last season.

Carrying the ball 49 fewer times than Barlow, Gore finished with 608 yards rushing to Barlow's 581 yards, and Gore's impressive 4.8 average was the best among all NFL rookie running backs with more than 50 carries.

And, at the essence of the matter, he has flat out looked like the team's best back in the early going this summer, raising his game to a new level.

But Gore - never one to say much and definitely never one to get into a war of words - says the competition at tailback feels no different to him than the day he joined the 49ers.

"I felt like when I first got drafted here and got on the field that I was fighting to be the starting back," Gore said. "It's the same (competition with Barlow), both of us are competing. Both of us are fighting hard, really. All the backs are fighting hard. I feel like I'm competing against every back out there. That's Kevan, Mo, T-Jack (Terry Jackson) and the rookie (Michael Robinson), 'cause if you aren't going hard and performing, the next guy will."

But Gore now carries a little more swagger to him, and he knows that he's a better and more accomplished back than he was while feeling his way around during his rookie season. Gore says the pace of the NFL now feels normal to him, and he fits right in with the speed of the game. Gore described last year as similar to the transition a player must make from high school to college, and now he understands the pro game and his place in it.

And he can feel his role gradually increasing as the summer practices go by. That's no mistake. The 49ers are preparing Gore to be a 20-carries-a-game guy.

Of course, there always is the concern about injury with Gore. He had major surgery on both knees in college, then had surgery to repair a torn labrum in each of his shoulders earlier this year. Gore said that he has "rehabbed real hard to try to get back and get everything right" and that now, "I'm feeling pretty good."

But is he ready to hold up to the pounding a featured back must take? That now seems to be the only real question hovering over Gore as he impresses onlookers on a daily basis.

"However many my coaches want to give me," Gore responded when asked how many carries he can handle on a weekly basis. "I feel like the more I run, the more (carries) I get, the better I get. Whenever my coach calls my name, however many times he calls it, I'm going to be ready."

If Gore wins the featured role, Nolan said he wouldn't have a problem feeding him the football on a regular basis. And it appears that's where the 49ers are headed in 2006, because nobody at training camp looks as hungry as Frank Gore with the football in hands.

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