49ers key to success: RB Michael Robinson

As Michael Robinson is quick to say, "Obviously, Frank's the guy, and he's proved that by no question." But Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore figures to have a short shelf life if he again takes the pounding that goes with the 373 touches he had during his breakout 2006 season. So the 49ers need someone to share that load, and that's where the second-year pro from Penn State enters the equation.

"We'd like to have him get 20 to 25 touches a game," 49ers coach Mike Nolan says of Gore, the team's prized commodity who was the NFC's starter in the Pro Bowl this year after just his second NFL season. That's just about what Gore had last year, when he averaged 23.3 touches per game with a high of 33 (twice) and a low of 14.

Gore, in fact, is a player who doesn't want to come off the field, and he displayed his surprising durability as the season wore on, recording 33 combined carries and receptions twice in the season's final three weeks.

But the 49ers know better than to let that kind of trend go on.

Gore has had major surgery to repair torn ligaments in each of his knees, and surgery to repair torn labrums in each of his shoulders. In football terminology, he's a ticking time bomb, as far as the chance that he'll go down to injury on any given hit.

That's football, and the 49ers can only protect him so much. But they can work in another complementary back to spell Gore and keep him fresh, preferably without their offense missing a beat. The perfect example is the San Diego Chargers, where LaDainian Tomlinson - a back Gore sometimes is compared with - was everybody's MVP last season while leading the NFL with 1,815 yards rushing. But Tomlinson's backup, Michael Turner, rushed for 502 yards, which ranked Turner 22nd in the AFC.

San Diego's high-powered offense ranked fourth in the NFL, and it kept clicking when Turner was in the game. That's what makes Robinson a key to the 49ers' success in 2006, because he is first up this summer with the opportunity to produce in an expanded role as Gore's backup.

"You can't win without two backs," Robinson said. "You just have to have it. Frank, carrying the ball 300 times a year, that takes a toll on you. We take some beatings. So you kind of have to have another guy that comes in. You can't lose anything when the main guy comes out. You have to come in and still call the same plays, still get the same production.

"I just want to be able to, whenever I'm in the game, for us not to be able to lose anything, keep up where Frank left off. So that the coaches feel comfortable enough with giving him a break so he can always stay fresh and do what he does - and that's run the ball."

Robinson knows a little something about running the football, too. The problem for him last year in his rookie season is that he was accustomed to doing it from the quarterback position in college. Robinson was the Big Ten Conference Offensive Player of the Year in his senior season as a quarterback.

It took him a while to get back in the groove at running back, a position where he also saw time as a starter at Penn State. But the position was a little more complex at the NFL level.

"A lot of these guys have been running the ball all their life," Robinson said. "I've been running the ball, but running the ball at quarterback is a lot different than running it from the backfield. When you're a quarterback, you can kind of ad-lib it out there, but when you're a running back, you got to be a machine, you get the ball, you've got to know, boom-boom, if this lane's cut off, you've got to cut, you've got to do this, you've got to do that. And I'm still learning. But I feel like I've gotten a lot better just throughout the offseason, especially with my run reads and things like that."

Robinson has packed on about five pounds more of muscle and plans to play at 228 pounds this season. Power was no problem for Robinson last year, when he ran over Philadelphia's physical Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins at the goal line - knocking him out - to score one of his two touchdowns. Robinson's problem was reading his blockers and picking holes. That's why he finished the season with just a 3.1 average, gaining 116 yards on 38 carries.

The 49ers would like to see Gore's primary backup get at least twice as many carries this season, and Robinson says he's up to the task.

When SFI asked how much better of a running back Robinson is today than when he joined the 49ers last year, he replied, "Oh, man. Probably eight to 10 times better. I'm serious. Now, when I run the ball, I run with a lot more confidence, because I know what I'm doing. If I mess up, I'm going to mess up going 125 percent and I'm going to get positive yards."

Shifty veteran Maurice Hicks is back to challenge Robinson for carries, and sixth-round draft pick Thomas Clayton also opened some eyes with his slashing style in the spring. But Robinson - who already is a core player on San Francisco's special teams - is the frontrunner behind Gore entering summer training camp.

"Well, competition will decide how that is," Nolan said. "But I would hope that Michael would make the next step as a running back. Last year was his first year full-time at the position, along with getting used to a new offense and all of that.

"Someone asked me, as a matter of fact, who would be one of the guys I'd be most pleased to make some real progress, and it would be Michael. Just because when we took him, we knew it would be a position change. The kind of person he is, he's a 49er. He's what you are looking for as far as the athletic things, the character things, the toughness, all of those things. I'd like to see that he would show some progress playing that position."

And that progress promises to play a significant role in San Francisco's 2007 success.

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