Posted: 5:00 p.m. Thursday, July 11, 2013
By Steve Busichio
Training camp is right around the corner, and Colin Kaepernick is dominating headlines for sporting a Miami Dolphins hat (for shame) and shedding his skivvies in ESPN's "The Body Issue." That's a pretty good indicator of how slow things are around 4949 Centennial (save for the Ahmad Brooks incident).
As far as the roster goes, the intriguing storylines heading into camp are the free-for-all battle at wide receiver and how the 2013 rookie class will fare. What has been largely overlooked in all this pre-training-camp chatter, however, is the return of 49ers running back Kendall Hunter. Maybe it's because people are more concerned with the rehab of Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham since Crabtree is out. Maybe it's because LaMichael James came onto the scene and took some of the spotlight away from Hunter. Whatever the case may be, Hunter and his return to the field -- which could be a huge X-factor for the 49ers offense -- deserves some serious recognition.
Outside of some costly fumbling issues, LaMichael James filled in admirably in Hunter's stead; but there's no question that Hunter is the more complete, polished running back. Standing at 5'7, 199 lbs., Hunter is two inches shorter and five pounds heavier than James. That kind of stature gives him a lower center of gravity and some added bulk, which helps him to squirt through the line and shed tacklers. He's got a great one-cut style, and his shiftiness enables him to switch direction on a dime.
Of course, the impact he'll have in 2013 is contingent upon two things:
1. How he has recovered from the torn Achilles he suffered in November
2. How the 49ers plan to use him within the offense
A late-May article from CSNBA's Matt Maiocco indicated that Hunter was a participant in individual drills during OTA's, and the third-year back assured he would be ready for the start of training camp. That's extremely encouraging news as it allows Hunter to get back to speed during training camp, ensuring he's ready for the field come September.
I'm a huge proponent of Frank Gore but Hunter has warranted the right to vulture a few more carries from him. For one, Hunter's deceptive speed allows him to be a better option than Gore in certain play-calling instances, and two, it serves to help Gore prolong his career and stay fresh throughout the season.
Hunter can be utilized in a variety of ways within Greg Roman's offense. While the coaching staff experiments and tinkers with the passing game this offseason, it will be interesting to see if Hunter gets any practice in at the slot. He could be a speedy option on short crossing routes over the middle, which would help to give Kaepernick space and keep his running lanes open. He should also fit into the read-option package with great fluidity. From a personnel perspective, splitting Hunter and James in the backfield gives the Niners an incredible amount of quickness, and would give opposing defenses night terrors.
Let's remember, Hunter only played in one-and-a-half games with Kaepernick before going down with a season-ending injury in New Orleans. There could be a great deal of untapped chemistry between those two players. Kaepernick's ability to buy time and keep options open could spell big things for Hunter -- a solid pass catcher and significant threat in . field
There's nothing Harbaugh and Roman love more than versatility, and the return of Hunter gives them a heck of a lot of it. His presence allows them to get even more creative with their run packages and his quick burst has to be accounted for by defenses. He's a great complement to Frank Gore, a good pass-catcher out of the backfield, and his reentry allows James to continue to develop as a runner and return man.
Many people (myself included) expected a breakout year from number 32 in 2012, but his season-ending injury, coupled with Gore turning in a career year, squashed that expectation. Had he qualified, his 5.2 yards per carry average last year would have ranked sixth in the NFL. With health on his side, there's no reason to think that 2013 won't be the year Hunter turns heads. We've yet to see what the Oklahoma State product is fully capable of on his own, let alone with Kaepernick behind center. 2013 will provide that chance.