SANTA CLARA, CA - The San Francisco 49ers led the NFC last season with 498 rushing attempts, more than half of those by Frank Gore.
That's a pretty heavy workload for a 29-year-old running back now entering his eighth season, so the 49ers brought in support. They signed bruising free agent Brandon Jacobs, fresh off helping the New York Giants win the Super Bowl, and took shifty LaMichael James with their second pick in the draft, to go along with holdover halfback Kendall Hunter.
The question is how the carries will be distributed, especially in light of the expected balancing of the offense with quarterback Alex Smith, who expects more passing opportunities in his second year with coach Jim Harbaugh.
Gore's 282 carries last season yielded 1,211 yards, both totals ranking as the second highest of his career, and he often has expressed a fondness for getting frequent touches so he can get in a rhythm.
"There's times when Frank may get carries. There's times where he may be pass-protecting. There's times where he's running routes," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I've seen Frank come in after not carrying the ball for a while and pop a pretty good-looking run, so I think Frank might be selling himself short a little bit there."
A prolific receiver for most of his career, Gore had 17 catches in 2011, the fewest since his rookie season, as San Francisco operated mostly in a conservative ball-control offense.
The reins might be loosened, with Harbaugh implementing his full playbook after being limited last summer because of the lockout-shortened offseason.
Gore, a three-time Pro Bowler, still sees a prominent role for himself in that offense, even if his carries go down.
"I train very hard in the offseason, and I'm here to do what I've been doing, try my best to play good football," said Gore, the franchise leader in career running yards. "I'll be involved, whether it's catching, blocking, doing whatever it takes."
Jacobs figures to relieve Gore from the task of getting the tough yards on third-and-short situations. At 6-4 and 264 pounds, the seven-year veteran sometimes gets confused with a defensive lineman and is all too happy to run between them, most specifically the tackles.
Jacobs had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Giants in 2007 and '08, averaging 5 yards a carry in each, but mostly shared the job of lead back with Ahmad Bradshaw in recent years.
Now 30, Jacobs has a notion of what he'll be asked to do.
"Basically why they got me here is to power it up inside, be that guy when they need that extra push,'' Jacobs said. "We all know Frank's a beast. If you ask me, Frank could do it all, but we have pretty different roles.''
As opposed to Hunter and James, who are built alike and may be used in similar capacities.
Hunter, a 5-7, 199-pound fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2011, thrived as a rookie. His quick burst of speed allowed him to pile up 473 rushing yards and another 195 on 16 catches, but his size evokes questions about his durability.
That's also the case for similarly built 5-9, 195-pound James, a two-time All-American who rushed for more than 5,000 yards in three years at Oregon.
But James must master the subtleties of his new duties. He always has played in a spread offense and had never lined up in an I formation, so the blocking and passing schemes he's seeing in practice are new.
"(It's) like learning a new language for me," James said. "It's like me going to Mexico and trying to speak Spanish."
James believes he's absorbing the system well, and he has already noticed the superior athletes at this level negate the speed advantage he had in college to a certain extent, so he's mindful to pay attention to the little things.
He also has learned another lesson that should serve him well.
"Leverage wins ballgames,'' James said. "I think the low man always wins. You don't have to be the biggest guy or the toughest guy out there. You have to be smart and have great leverage.''
By Jorge L. Ortiz