The San Francisco 49ers boast not one, but two of the best running backs in the National Football League. With Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter literally carrying a heavy workload for the 49ers, the team has gone 19-1-1 when the duo combine for 20 or more carries.
Such was the case in the team’s recent 32-7 dismantling of the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Gore carried the ball 17 times for 78 yards, while Hunter added 27 yards on five carries, including a 14-yard touchdown run.
The talented running backs share a great deal of respect for each other on and off the field. The bond between the two has clearly translated into consistent success for San Francisco. The relationship of the 49ers running back was further examined in the recent edition of Gameday. Running backs coach Tom Rathman explained the dynamic of his meeting room and how Gore constantly looks out for his younger teammates.
Get to know the hard-working ways of the 49ers running back in the latest Gameday cover story.
I’ve Got Your Back
San Francisco’s running back room shares mutual respect for each other and the game of football.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com
Frank Gore has the most carries and rushing yards in the history of the San Francisco 49ers and is three rushing touchdowns away from having sole possession of that record in team history, too. He’s been to three Pro Bowls in eight seasons and has been a respected runner throughout the league since he was selected in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Even will all those accolades and credibility amongst his peers, Gore remains humble in the presence of his teammates. In reality, all he wants to do is work and continue to find ways to improve at his craft. But Gore’s not alone in striving to be his best. Surrounded by a group of committed players in the San Francisco 49ers locker room, Gore stands out amongst his teammates as a leader. Because of that, they voted him offensive co-captain before the start of the 2012 campaign.
But Gore doesn’t soak up all the glory. He shares it with his teammates and coaches, always crediting them for his triumphs on the field. When Gore goes to TV production meetings days prior to a Sunday kick-off, the elite running back tends to bring his understudy, Kendall Hunter, into the meetings that give broadcasters additional information before gameday. “He’s a little guy, but he’s real tough,” Gore says of Hunter. “He loves what he does, very fast. People think they can take him on because he’s small, but he can deliver a punch.”
Hunter, a second-year runner, who was a fourth-round pick himself, appreciates the wisdom and guidance he receives daily from one of the league’s top running backs. Hunter likes how Gore keeps it real with him on every detail. “I’m lucky to have a guy that’s like that,” says Hunter. “He’s a great back and to learn from him. To have him here, I’m learning a lot ever since the day I got here. It was about learning – him giving me tips – he’s just like a big brother.”
The tandem of Gore and Hunter has been more than effective in their 25 regular season games working together. The 49ers are 18-1-1 when both players combine for 20 or more carries in a game. As for 2012, both remain especially dominant, the 49ers are 6-0-1 when out-rushing opponents. Both backs have also been key in the 49ers racing out to be atop the NFC West through 10 weeks. With Gore (5.4) and Hunter (5.0) standing out as the only teammates in the NFL to average 5.0 or more yards per carry this season, it’s no surprise the 49ers are currently ranked as the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 170.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry.
In order to have such success for a sustained period of time, the running backs’ genuine relationship has enabled consistent performances. Hunter looks up to Gore as a big brother. Meanwhile, running backs coach and respected former 49ers fullback Tom Rathman, looks at the group as his children and students. “I think it’s a little bit of both, as students and as part of who you are,” says Rathman. “As a father, I want my kids to do the right thing and have a lot of success. As a football coach, you want the same thing for your players – to go out and have success. So yeah, I can see these guys as being part of who I want to be as a coach. It’s important.”
In the student-teacher role in the meeting room is where the running backs do much of their damage before kick-off. Rathman leads meticulous film study, covering everything from Greg Roman’s diverse running schemes, to the finer details of the opponent’s personnel. He starts with the snap of the play to the end, the stance, the angles, and how to get specific blocks and runs executed. He’s thorough with the information, too.
But it’s Gore who asks the most questions, not because he’s necessarily in search of an answer, but sometimes to spark a conversation for his fellow running backs to hear. “I just like to get the most,” says Gore. “I let them know you don’t have to be scared to ask questions. The more you know, the easier it is on the field.”
Rathman refers to Gore as the big brother in the 49ers running back equation. He also consistently sees Gore looking out for his little brothers. “He does a great job with it,” details Rathman. “You’d think a guy would be selfish or worry about himself and getting himself ready to play at a high level consistently, but Frank is continuously working with these other backs, making sure they know what they’re doing – giving them some hints on what’s going to make their job easier. He’s been an outstanding player and a complete player. He lets them know this is how it’s done and these are the expectations.”
Gore might ask the most questions, but it’s mostly affirmation of what he already knows. “Really, a lot of it is confirmation,” says Rathman. “To confirm that’s what it is. He may know it, but he may ask for somebody else. I would say Frank is always involved. It’s really conversations you have when you coach these guys.”
Beyond conversations, the group is tight as a whole. Mutual respect and a shared vision from the veterans and young backs allow them to build solid bonds. With respect to the teacher/father/position coach, Rathman is appreciated not just because of his two Super Bowl rings and decade-plus work in the NFL as a running backs coach, but because of the way he supports and uplifts his players with detailed information. It comes from experience. “He’s so smart and he beats everything into our heads,” says Gore. “He understands, the more you know on the field, the slower the game feels and the faster you can play to help your team be successful.”
The 49ers look fast this year all right. In the second season running Roman’s offense, Gore and Hunter have 1,069 combined rushing yards. Gore’s 753 yards rank eighth in the NFL through 10 weeks, while Hunter has supplied 316 yards of his own, including a career-high 81-yard game against the Buffalo Bills.
Roman knows how dynamic his running backs are for him, allowing him to dive deep into his offensive playbook, even dialing up split-back alignments learned from his time working for former 49ers coach George Seifert when the two worked together in Carolina. Roman raved about his backs prior to a Week 10 tie against the St. Louis.
“We love them and they wear a lot of different hats,” said the coordinator in his weekly press briefing. “Coach Rathman does a great job getting them prepared week in and week out, from top to bottom, everybody in the room. The first thing that jumps out about Frank and Kendall, not from a talent standpoint but from just their mindset standpoint, is they love football. These guys are natural born football players and they love football, they understand football, love to compete. There’s nothing about them at all, not one iota where you ever question their effort, because it’s always great. Protection, I think we’ve made a lot great strides up to this point with our young guys in protection across the board really. But those guys, they’re difference makers at the position. We’re very fortunate to have them.”
Besides being tough, football-loving, unselfish teammates, the 49ers running backs are sponges when it comes to learning about the game. They, too, are eager to share input, something Rathman respects as a former player. “There’s a lot of things, your coach taught you a lot, but a lot of times you figure it out yourself out there on the football field,” says Rathman. “You find out what’s feasible and what’s not, what’s real and what’s not.”
The running back coach also relies on drill work from his playing days. It’s a key portion of his weekly teachings, which include a heavy emphasis on ball protection every Wednesday. “I like doing that,” says Gore. “I also like doing his cone drill, his jump-cut drill and all the blocking drills.”
Rathman instructs his players with purpose. Everything they’ll do in drill work is correlated to their roles on the football field. They appreciate the tough love, too. “He’s a good coach and he’s tough,” says Hunter. “He’s tough on you because he wants you to be the best you can be – no matter what. Just having him around to push you makes you even better. If you’re not doing something right – he’ll be the first person to let you know.”
It’s no secret why Rathman wears his Jim Harbaugh-issued blue collar work shirt for every 49ers practice. “We consider ourselves to all be blue-collar,” says the coach. “We don’t mind doing the dirty work. We really don’t. We want to be the best at doing the dirty work. We take a lot of pride in it.”
Gore understands the symbolism of the shirt. He knows his running back coach cares more about the grittier side of the position than the glorification of it. “He cares about the small things that a lot of backs can’t do, things like protecting,” says Gore. “Protecting, that’s a tough job to do, that’s a blue-collar job. If he sees you’re doing that well, he feels like you’ll be all right.”
Gore’s been more than all right in that category. Knockdown blitz pickups have been a staple of his playing career. That tough-minded mentality carries over to the entire room, which includes a former collegiate defensive end who’s developed into one of the best fullbacks in the league. Bruce Miller is the only true fullback in the meeting room, but still is recognized for his efforts the same as Rathman’s other students.
“He’s a pretty good fullback right now,” says Rathman of Miller, a former standout collegiate pass-rusher in his second year playing on offense. “He’ll continually get better, but he’s pretty good right now. He continues to grow as a football player and as a fullback every day. We like the progress that he’s made.”
The entire room continues to get better one day at a time. The relationships, too, grow tighter with each day. “I have to say it’s like a family, all brothers,” says Hunter. “We’re always together and if something goes down we all have each other’s back.”
Tags: Bruce Miller, Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Tom Rathman
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