Where he fits in: Glen Coffee

After one season as Frank Gore's backup, the 49ers jettisoned veteran DeShaun Foster from their plans, obviously not satisfied with the alternative he provided to the team's star rusher. Now in comes a fresh set of legs to take over that role in 3rd-round draft pick Glen Coffee, who could be the guy to help Gore grind it out and transform the 49ers into the power rushing team they want to become.

After trading away their second-round pick Saturday, the Niners made the Alabama junior the second pick of their 2009 draft class early Sunday morning, and that status alone immediately vaults Coffee ahead of holdover veterans Michael Robinson and Thomas Clayton as the top candidate to share carries with Gore and make the 49ers more than just a one-dimensional rushing team.

But is he up to the task? While some draft prognosticators say Coffee went just about where he should have at the No. 74 overall pick and others say the 49ers reached for him, several agree he could have used another year in college to hone and polish his skills and further develop in preparation for the rumble and tumble of the pro game that awaits him.

But the 49ers obviously don't agree with that assessment. They see a hard-nosed runner who can pound between the tackles better than his size might suggest and was consistent and productive at the highest level of the college game. That sounds a lot like the RB prospect the 49ers selected in the third round in 2005, and we all know how that guy has worked out for the team.

"It was one of those things that you have a guy there that's a downhill runner, very determined, physical, runs behind his pads – he gives you what you want," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said. "Obviously, Frank is the guy, but I think from time to time we'll get him in there, and certainly with all the wear and tear on Frank, we just want to make sure we're taken care of."

Despite relatively average size at 6-foot and 210 pounds, Coffee played much bigger last season while proving that he can take care of business as the featured back in Alabama's surge back to national prominence.

He was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award given to college football's top running back while rushing for 1,383 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging a healthy 5.9 yards on his 233 carries and also showing an ability to catch the football out of the backfield.

But Coffee's most impressive trait was his strength and ability to take on tacklers and fight for extra yards while playing with all-out aggression. That's what the 49ers want to see in the guy they put on the field when it's time to give Gore a blow.

"I'm passionate and just love contact, blocking as well as running," Coffee said Sunday. "I mean, I always want to fall forward, always falling forward. Just getting up the field, falling forward, but I can also make that big play. I'd probably want to run you over first, but if I can't run around you I'm going to try to make you miss and get away from you. Trust me, if I see a hole I won't think twice about lowering my head.

"I feel like I can do it all. I'll be able to handle anything the 49ers need me to do or the coaches expect of me. Whatever it is the role I fall into it, I feel I can do it."

It's relatively obvious the 49ers don't feel the other running backs currently on their roster can give them the dimension they are looking for to complement Gore while also giving the team a change of pace to what the 2006 Pro Bowl starter brings to the table.

"There is a difference when you look at the two," Singletary said. "Frank is more of a slash guy, and he is a physical runner as well. Coffee is more a downhill kind of guy. There's not a whole lot of flash in him. He's, ‘I'm just coming at you. If you're there, I'm going to take you on. Maybe I'll make you miss if I have a chance, but for the most part, I'm running for daylight.'

"I think he will complement Frank very well the way he runs and the authority he runs with. I really think it will be a very nice mix."

Coffee says he would like to pack on an extra 10 pounds, which will make him stronger and add more power to his punch. But he already has enough as is to come in and contribute right away for the Niners.

SFI's 2009 PROJECTION: Pencil in Coffee for regular work as Gore's primary backup this season, as long as he proves during the rest of the spring and summer that he can pick up the offense, protect the football and handle the elevated tempo and level of play the pro game will present him. Expect that Coffee will be up to the task after emerging last year in his junior season and demonstrating he could perform at a level above the competition. As Singletary says, "First and foremost, whatever little bit Frank leaves on the plate, then Coffee can pick it up." If he can produce, we see that being anywhere from 5 to 7 carries per game, and perhaps even more if Coffee can consistently find the holes and pick up the extra yard upon contact, which has been his specialty in college. We can see this developing into a situation similar to what the 49ers had in 2001, when Garrison Hearst still was at the top of his game, but the 49ers needed a productive back to take some of the workload off him. Kevan Barlow, the team's third-round draft pick that year, rushed for 512 yards that season, averaging 4.1 yards a pop, while Hearst led the way with 1,206 yards (4.8 average) and the 49ers transformed themselves into a 12-4 playoff team after finishing 6-10 the year before. While there figures to be more disparity in the rushing totals of Gore and Coffee this year, the rookie has the potential to give the 49ers their most productive backup running back since Barlow in 2001-2002, particularly since the team is steering its offense toward a more ground-oriented attack.

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