SANTA CLARA — One day after the 49ers announced running back Kendall Hunter’s 2014 season was likely over due to an ACL tear in his knee, head coach Jim Harbaugh expressed grief over the injured back’s situation:
“I’m sick, physically sick for Kendall, because he’s such a fine person, great player, a very good friend, an ally. But he’ll be back, know that.”
The sincerity could be felt in Harbaugh’s comments,who diverted a conversation about rookie Carlos Hyde in order to share his feelings over Hunter’s situation in unprompted fashion.
Hunter was likely to have been an important contributor to the run game this season. The 49ers feature a variety of exciting first-year backs — in Marcus Lattimore and Hyde — as well as a host of veterans who are hungry to see playing time behind Frank Gore.
Lattimore — a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 — is the biggest question mark. It remains uncertain whether he can regain the flashes of brilliance during his days at the University of South Carolina after suffering a gruesome knee injury in 2012.
Despite Hunter’s injury, and the need to fill his role on the depth chart, Harbaugh said that the team will continue to be cautious with Lattimore as he continues his rehab work:
“We are gonna do what’s best for Marcus Lattimore in the opinion of the doctors, and this organization, because we truly believe that’s what’s in his best interest, and that’s what’s in the best interest of the program. … I think of it as my own son, what would I do if my own son was in the same situation. I would do what’s best for him.”
As Lattimore prepares to come come off the PUP list for the first time during training camp, the running back will get to make a case for himself among stiff competition.
Another player who Harbaugh mentioned in the hunt for the backup spot was LaMichael James, the third-year player out of the University of Oregon.
James has had a minimal role with the team after being drafted in 2012. He projects to a larger set of special team and return duties this season, and now has the chance to get more touches on offense.
James has experience in this scenario as well, having replaced Hunter during his previous absence in 2012 after a partial tear of the Achilles tendon sidelined him for the final five games of the season.
Harbaugh spoke about James and his ability to win the position Sunday morning:
“We have complete and total confidence in LaMichael James. … We know that he can be a very fine football player. If you look at where he was last year at this time in training camp, he got an MCL injury and that denied action for quite a while, and affected where he was on the depth chart.”
The 49ers hope this year’s second-round pick, Hyde, will end up as the heir apparent to Frank Gore, with his blend of power and speed fitting the 49ers ground attack.
Harbaugh said he has liked what he has seen so far from the 22-year old rookie Hyde:
“He’s doing extremely well. First-year player, he’s doing really really good things.”