Running backs seem to be the easiest players to overhype after the draft. Maybe it’s because the ones good enough to get drafted generally run up some pretty ridiculous stats in college, like 15-20 touchdowns in a season and multiple 200-yard games.
- Kendall Hunter came in with plenty of promise as a fourth-rounder who had nearly identical seasons at Oklahoma State in 2008 and 2010: 1,500+ yards and 16 rushing touchdowns each year.
- LaMichael James was a Heisman candidate at Oregon.
- Marcus Lattimore, who was absolutely electric at South Carolina, might be generating more interest among 49ers fans than anyone on the team besides Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith.
None of those guys have come close to fulfilling their promise yet, although one can point to a lack of opportunities in each case. Regardless, I’m going to go right on ahead and explain why Carlos Hyde (who rushed for 2,491 yards and 31 touchdowns over his last two seasons) has a good shot at becoming Frank Gore’s eventual replacement fairly soon.
Hyde is considerably bigger than Hunter or James, and even a little bigger than Lattimore. However, Hyde also had some problems controlling his weight early in his collegiate career. If he can stay strong without his waistline expanding too much, we’re looking at a player who shouldn’t be easy to bring down.
“I really pay attention to Frank Gore. Before I even got drafted I was comparing myself to him and Marshawn Lynch because those guys are relentless with the ball and then run tough.”
That’s what Hyde told reporters a couple weeks ago, and it wasn’t just talk. It’s way too early to tell if Hyde can put Gore’s patience and Lynch’s “beastmode” persistence together, but that’s how he looked during his senior season at Ohio State.
Hyde doesn’t have breakaway speed, but that’s not what the 49ers require from their lead ballcarrier. Hyde is the type of runner who waits a split second for his blockers to open a lane, then keeps his legs churning to rack up positive yardage after contact. Sound familiar?
The rookie doesn’t seem like someone who’ll lose yardage very often on his carries, and that’s what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman would prefer over a home run threat who’s liable to put the 49ers in several 2nd-and-12 situations. When asked to describe himself, Hyde detailed exactly what the 49ers’ offensive braintrust loves to see from their power running game: “I’m a relentless runner, always scratching and crawling for those extra yards.”
Not a problem, and that’s as important for this team as any other in the NFL. Hyde might not yet be the artist in this phase that Gore is, but the potential is there. He’s already a willing blocker, with strong technique and more than enough mass to create a sizable obstacle for oncoming pass rushers. This is an area that keeps Gore on the field over guys like Hunter and James, and in recent years that’s arguably meant more snaps for Gore than his body can/should withstand at this stage.
“I did a lot of pass protection. That was a huge thing at Ohio State,” Hyde said. “If you can’t pass protect, there’s a good chance you probably won’t play.”
With all respect to Anthony Dixon — an engaging personality who considered himself a feature back while still giving his all on special teams — even if Hyde brings nothing else in his rookie season, he’s already a better option when the 49ers need to punch it in from inside the five-yard line. Dixon was able to launch himself over defenders from time to time, but Hyde is a far more substantial presence as a runner in close quarters.
Despite Gore’s 14-yard, 11-carry effort in the NFC Championship, this isn’t about pushing Gore out the door. If there’s anyone who can surpass the 972 yards Garrison Hearst rushed for in 2002 (the most in franchise history for a back in his age-31 season), it’s the 49ers’ all-time rushing leader, a man who laid some absolutely ridiculous blocks last season — both in pass protection and during some of Kaepernick’s most successful scrambles.
However, there’s an opening for Hyde to make a bigger impact in his rookie season than any 49ers offensive player since Mike Iupati.
- We’ve seen some flashes from Hunter, who may be a better rusher a year removed from his Achilles tear. But Hunter rushed for the fewest yards per game of his career in 2013 and it appears the coaching staff considers him a “change-of-pace” back (a running back’s version of getting friendzoned).
- If James somehow breaks camp with the team, it’ll be because the 49ers couldn’t find anyone else to return punts.
- Lattimore hasn’t been tackled since Oct. 27, 2012.
- The 49ers are well aware that Gore failed to rush for four yards per carry in 10 of the team’s final 14 games.
Gore is as proud as they come, and he’ll make an impact on the 2014 49ers. He won’t cede his carries without a fight, but he also won’t keep what he knows (which is a lot) to himself. It’s up to Hyde to ask, and it sounds like he will.
“Being able to watch Frank Gore and being to learn from him is awesome. Not too many people get to learn from a guy who is probably going into the Hall of Fame. I’m going to really pay attention to him and take notes.”