Niners running back Kendall Hunter showed his potential in his rookie season. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
It’s possible that the surprise impact player on the 49ers offense in 2012 will be a guy who was on the roster in 2011.
It’s possible that the Niners spent much of the offseason upgrading their offensive personnel – adding Randy Moss, Brandon Jacobs, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James – yet could reap the greatest rewards from one of the rookies of the fine 2011 draft class.
Kendall Hunter, the team’s fourth-round choice out of Oklahoma State last year, played a backup role to starter Frank Gore in 2011 and is ticketed for a supporting role again. In fact, the 49ers’ backfield now is more crowded than ever with the addition of Jacobs and James.
But even in a complementary role as a rookie, Hunter showed the talent and potential that some believe could lead to being a star in the NFL.
Gregg Rosenthal, the Around the League editor for NFL.com, believes Hunter has an “it” factor that is easy to see when he’s on the field. His speed, vision and explosiveness – playing in an offense that seems to make the best use of its talent – could lead to something special for Hunter, Rosenthal wrote recently.
“He’s San Francisco’s answer to Darren Sproles, except he has more surprising power,” wrote Rosenthal. “Again and again, we saw Hunter gain additional yards after contact. He falls forward when getting hit – at least when you can find him.”
Though Hunter is listed as just 5-foot-7 and 199 pounds, he showed surprising strength and toughness in his rookie NFL season. He played all 16 games, carried the ball 112 times for 473 yards (a 4.2-yard average) and two touchdowns and added 16 receptions for 195 yards.
As Rosenthal looks forward, he believes Hunter will play a larger role – and have a larger impact.
“The 49ers might have the most creative offensive staff in football when it comes to the running game,” he wrote. “They won’t hesitate to have Gore and Hunter in the backfield together in a variety of formations. … Hunter put up 668 yards from scrimmage as a rookie. He’s not going to suddenly become a workhorse, but that number could double as the 49ers find more ways to get him the ball.”
One curiosity, however, is that Hunter and James are similar players: small, strong explosive backs who have versatility and open-field playmaking abilities. It will be interesting to see how head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman work the two into the offensive scheme.
Even when the Niners drafted Hunter last year, they believed he would be more than just a third-down back.
“We’re not looking at him as a change-of-pace back,” general manager Trent Baalke told reporters after the 2011 draft. “We think he’s a four-down back.”
Hunter’s running backs coach at Oklahoma State, Robert Gillespie, certainly is a believer. Shortly after the 49ers drafted Hunter, Gillespie, in an interview with the website Niners Nation, said Hunter is a “great kid” who has the tools to be a top player.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever seen,” Gillespie said. “He’s not the biggest guy. From that standpoint, when you see him you question his toughness, but he’s a kid that we didn’t take out of the game on third-and-short or passing downs when he had to pick up blitzers.
“If you put the tape on, he’s a physical football player. It’s just that you see him in person and you think, ‘Wow!’ You didn’t realize he was that short. But he doesn’t play like that when you watch him on tape. He’s a physical kid that plays a lot bigger than his size.”