49ers training camp: What’s the outlook at running back?

What once looked like the deepest position on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster has taken a hit this past week, as running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James each suffered injuries.

For Hunter, the news was devastating as he’ll be out for the season after tearing his ACL.  The James’ situation isn’t as serious, but the dislocated elbow he suffered will put him out of action for about a month. This is still a significant setback for James, who couldn’t find his way back into the mix after missing time with a knee sprain towards the end of last preseason.

In their absence, the 49ers will need to find out a lot about two ball carriers who have never set foot on an NFL field, rookie Carlos Hyde and reclamation project Marcus Lattimore.

With Hyde, there’s an abundance of promise and moving him to the forefront could be a blessing. He was the top-rated running back on most draft boards, and was widely considered a steal in the second round. With a healthy Hunter, it looked like he might be relegated to short-yardage duty in his first year, but now that outlook has changed.

Hyde will get first dibs being Frank Gore‘s primary backup, a position that has yielded about six carries per game on average since 2011. The 49ers generally only use two runners in their game plan anyway, as Gore and his primary backup have received 91 percent of the carries given to backs over the past three seasons.

Look for Hyde to slide right into Hunter’s role, with maybe even a few more attempts mixed in every week to keep Gore fresh.

As far as Lattimore, he believes he’s close to making his debut in camp but still remains on the active/non-football injury list as he works his way back from the knee injury that cost him his rookie season.

Even if/when healthy, the 49ers will be very careful with Lattimore and it’s likely they’ll take things slow. There’s a real chance he won’t be active on game days much this season, as he offers little to special teams as a third back.

The 49ers have their eye on the future with Lattimore, and may see 2015 as the ideal time for him to become a consistent contributor.

Beyond Hyde and Lattimore, expect Jewel Hampton to see a lot of action in the preseason. He led the 49ers last year during the 2013 exhibition campaign with 37 carries for 113 yards. Barring an injury though, he doesn’t stand much of a chance to break into the lineup. 

Photo: Michael Thomas/Getty Images

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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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