Niners ground attack revolving around Gore

Can Frank Gore shoulder the rushing load for the 49ers this season? The second-year tailback is the wrong guy to ask. He has had to answer about major injuries since the day he began enduring them as a college sophomore. Now he just wants to talk about being fed the football, something that's sure to happen this season as the Niners attempt to get the NFL's worst offense of 2005 off the ground.

While Gore has displayed the potential this summer to become a top-tier featured back, there are murmurs that still follow him around suggesting it might not be too wise for the 49ers to count on Gore becoming a bell-cow back because of his injury history.

But coach Mike Nolan is having none of that. To protect his struggling defense - which spent way too much time on the field during much of the preseason, just as it did throughout 2005 - Nolan expects to have a 60-40 run/pass ratio this season. That means a heavy workload for Gore, who took over as the team's featured back when the 49ers traded Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets last month.

That's sweet music to the ears of Gore, who last season overtook Barlow in the season finale to become the first rookie in 15 years to lead the 49ers in rushing.

"The more I touch the ball, the better I get," Gore said. "Kevan's not here, so now coach is putting it all in my hands. I'm happy about that. He feels that I can get the job done and I feel I can, too."

Gore has been convincing more people than just Nolan that he can be The Man at tailback, and now the 49ers are placing the hopes of their rushing game - and perhaps their entire offense - on the surgically-repaired shoulders of the University of Miami product.

The 49ers finished dead last in the NFL rankings last year with one of the worst offenses in the team's 60-year history. That led directly to the 49ers finishing dead last in the NFL rankings with one of the worst defenses in team history, because San Francisco's dismal offense couldn't remain on the field or sustain drives.

The Niners have made a lot of changes since then, revamping their offense considerably during the offseason. San Francisco will send six new opening-day starters onto the field at the new Cardinals Stadium on Sunday to begin the season against Arizona. Gore could be the key newcomer to that lineup as Nolan envisions a run-oriented attack.

Gore quickly took away the starting job from Barlow early in training camp, then displayed power between the tackles, burst around the edges and explosiveness in the open field while averaging 5.4 yards a carry during the preseason.

But performance isn't the issue with Gore. Injuries are a different matter.

After bursting onto the scene at Miami, averaging 9.1 yards per carry as a true freshman, Gore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the 2002 season while Willis McGahee took his place in the starting lineup and became an All-American star.

Gore returned as the starter in 2003, but he tore the ACL in his right knee in the season's fifth game, jeopardizing not only his college career but also the first-round NFL status for which he appeared destined.

Gore returned to the Miami lineup nine months after his second knee surgery to rush for 945 yards as the Hurricanes' starting tailback, then left for the pro ranks after his junior season instead of remaining another year at Miami to solidify his status and convince the NFL that he was back in top form.

That allowed San Francisco the opportunity to grab him with the first pick of the third round in the 2005 draft, and nobody in 49erland has been disappointed.

Working in gradually as a rookie before the team increased his carries near midseason, Gore rushed for 255 yards in San Francisco's final three games, overtaking Barlow as the team's rushing leader with his career-high 108-yard effort in the season finale against Houston.

Gore finished with 608 yards rushing - the seventh-highest total by a rookie in team history and the most by a San Francisco rookie in 22 years - and his 4.8 average was the highest among all NFL rookie running backs with 50 or more carries.

But Gore finished strong with both his shoulders hurting in a big way. He had separate surgeries during the offseason to repair torn labrums in each shoulder.

Gore's burrowing, surging, low-to-the-ground running style puts a lot of abuse on those shoulders, and that will only continue as his carries increase. But Gore says there are no worries about carrying the load and remaining healthy despite his history of injuries.

"I'm good," he said. "I don't think about that. I don't think about my knees, my shoulders. I'm all right. The time is now here, and I've got to go out and prove that I can get the job done."

Gore has shown no ill effects of his shoulder surgeries during this summer, just as he showed none from his knee injuries last year as a rookie. He quickly convinced the 49ers that they could discard Barlow, who had been the team's starting tailback since late in the 2003 season.

"Some people come back from injuries pretty good and some guys don't," Nolan said. "Frank thus far has come back pretty well from his things. He does run strong and he's still a very physical player. It probably has something to do with why his shoulders got banged up a little in the past. I hope he stays healthy the entire season because he's clearly our best back."

The regular presence of Gore has injected some life into San Francisco's offense and has given the 49ers a formidable threat to take pressure this season of second-year quarterback Alex Smith, who struggled mightily last year as a rookie with few offensive weapons around him.

Though Gore is low-key and speaks softly off the field, Smith said his backfield partner is full of fire when he's on it, and that's rubbing off on both the new and old in San Francisco's offensive huddle.

"Frank's an extremely passionate player," Smith said. "Anyone who knows him knows that Frank's all ball, in a sense. It's something he deeply cares about. In a sense, it's kind of like all he cares about. He lives and dies with this. He's very passionate about football and loves what he does. He has that hunger to be a good player. It's nice, it's refreshing, and it's the kind of players I think we want to have around here, hungry people that want to be successful, and he fits that."

Smith says Gore's versatile talents also fit well with what the 49ers are looking for from their featured back.

"Frank's a very well-rounded runner," Smith said. "He's not a guy that fits one mold. He's not specifically between the tackles. He's not a slash guy. He breaks a lot of tackles, he makes guys miss, he can catch well, he can run well between the tackles and he can block well. He's a guy that's pretty good in all facets of the game, as far as a running back goes. He does a lot of it, which is why he's pretty special."

If the 49ers are to climb from the depths and have anything special happening for them this year, they will have to get their overhauled offense rolling from the start. That's where Gore comes in, which could point him toward a big season.

But Gore doesn't look that far ahead. He knows better.

"I've got goals, but I want to get the season going first," he said. "And then kind of let it out there."

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