Brandon Jacobs and Ted Ginn were the two San Francisco 49ers who didn’t practice on Thursday afternoon. They worked out on a side field while the rest of the team worked together on the two main practice fields during the media-allowed portion of practice, which means they probably aren’t playing on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
In Ginn’s case, we know what this means. We may not all like it, but Kyle Williams will be returning punts once again (so get ready for Fox to show plenty of replays of Williams fumbling against the New York Giants, which for 49ers fans will become the “painful replay” version of San Francisco Giants fans getting inundated with the Scott Cousins colliding with Buster Posey — again and again and again…).
That Williams will trot back to receive if/when the 49ers’ defense shuts down the Packers’ offense is beyond debate. LaMichael James isn’t ready for the challenge of returning punts in Lambeau, and the 49ers don’t really have any other options if Ginn can’t go.
This next part isn’t quite as certain, but I believe on Sunday we’ll see more from Kendall Hunter than ever before. Not only is Hunter the lead kickoff returner with Ginn probably out, but without Jacobs he’s going to be the only guy who spells Frank Gore (besides perhaps a carry or two for Anthony Dixon on short-yardage). Based on the soon-to-be-concluded offseason and his overall performance during the preseason, Hunter is more than ready.
Fine, forget Hunter’s 5.8 ypc during the preseason — preseason is the time when guys like Thomas Clayton look good, we all get that. But Hunter looks like a completely different player. He’s bigger. He isn’t that quick little dude who’ll give a team fits if given some space to break loose anymore; Hunter is finishing off runs like a top tier starter at his position. In fact, I think if Gore wasn’t around and teams went back to emphasizing a lead back (as opposed to using the committee system that now pervades the league and crushes the spirits of fantasy football team owners throughout the land), Hunter would run for over 1,200 yards this year.
Now, I’ve predicted an increase in Hunter’s role before with questionable results. I thought the 49ers would send more passes Hunter’s way in the NFC Championship, but he was targeted zero times during that game.
They still might not target Hunter through the air on Sunday, but he’ll get his carries because…
— Gore isn’t coming off a broken hip like he was last season, but Gore wasn’t the same guy after rushing for 100+ yards in Weeks 5-9 (five straight wins for the Niners, by the way) and then injuring his ankle against the Giants early on in Week 10. The 49ers need to conserve Gore like Bay Area residents used to ration water during drought years.
— Hunter was a rookie last year; now he’s the guy who probably has received the most praise from the coaching staff on the offensive side — other than maybe Randy Moss.
— James was drafted in the second round and has shown explosiveness at times during practice, but that didn’t really translate to preseason action. One has to believe that James is a ways away from being an integral part of the offense.
— With all the talk about Moss and Mario Manningham, those guys are around as much to stretch the field and open things up for the running game. I’d be shocked if the 49ers didn’t look like this in the 2012 season: use Gore and Hunter on the ground along with short passes to Michael Crabtree to jab, jab, jab, jab, jab … then once the opposing defense is loosened up, perhaps a little wobbly, BOOM — they’ll throw a rude uppercut in the form of a deep shot to Moss, Manningham or Vernon Davis. Hunter’s going to throw his fair share of Greg Roman’s jabs on Sunday.