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49ers’ Hunter can’t afford to rest

- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. (AP) - Kendall Hunter's phone wasn't blowing up with messages the night the rookie running back scored the 49ers' first touchdown of the preseason on a dazzling play in the third quarter.

Outside of a brief chat with his mother shortly after the game, Hunter didn't receive many congratulatory calls or text messages at all.

"And she didn't see the game, she just saw the stats," Hunter said before practice Tuesday. "I didn't talk to too many other people."

That's exactly how the 49ers' fourth-round pick prefers it.

With more than two weeks left before the start of the regular season, the last thing the soft-spoken Hunter wants to do is get comfortable. Pats on the back can wait until Sept. 3 when final roster cuts are made.

Until then the smallest player on San Francisco's roster won't relax _ even if many people are already penciling him as a key member of the 49ers backfield.

"He's definitely a guy who brings his lunch bucket to work," fellow running back Anthony Dixon said. "It's a long season and if we've got a guy like Kendall who can help us, take some of the practice reps off us and help us in games, that's big because we're going to need him. I just hope the coaches put it all in play."

Listed at 5-foot-7 and 199 pounds, Hunter is third on San Francisco's depth chart behind oft-injured Frank Gore and Dixon. But the two-time All-American proved against the Raiders he's capable of handling just about anything the coaching staff throws his way.

He rushed for 105 yards on nine carries and scored on a 53-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter against Oakland's second-team defense.

Hunter took the handoff from quarterback Colin Kaepernick, broke through the right side of the line without being touched and then sped past a tackle attempt by safety Jerome Boyd. He raced the rest of the way into the end zone.

It was the 49ers' first touchdown of the season after being held to three points against New Orleans then getting only a field goal in the first half against Oakland.

"As a player I was taught that if you're going to do something, do it the hardest you can or don't do it at all," Hunter said. "I mean, that was good but I just want to be out there to help the team any way I can. Whatever they need me to do, I'm going to do. Anything."

That includes sacrificing his body to save the 49ers quarterbacks.

Hunter, who has been playing with a metal plate in his right ankle since his junior year of high school, worked on his pass protection throughout training camp. But it didn't come to fruition until the second half Saturday when he upended a blitzing Oakland linebacker, allowing Kaepernick a few extra seconds to work.

So while he may be dwarfed by his teammates in the running backs meeting room, Hunter finally measured up.

"He's done considerably well," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after his team's 17-3 win. "(Running backs coach Tom Rathman) has him working on that quite a bit in practice and he's really done a good job."

It hasn't been a completely smooth transition from college to the NFL. Hunter played in a spread offense at Oklahoma State and had a pair of 1,500-yard seasons there but has been trying to learn the nuances of the West Coast offense Harbaugh is employing in San Francisco.

That's meant more running between the tackles and sweeps, something he didn't do a lot of in college. But like Hunter's run against the Raiders, he's approached it at full speed.

"He struggles a little bit but you can tell that he's got the fight in him," Dixon said. "When I saw him do what he did Saturday I wasn't surprised. I saw what he did in college a couple times so no, I wasn't surprised. Kendall's here early every day and he puts in the work."

Notes: Harbaugh declined to say when he'll name a starting quarterback for the regular season. "I just don't have any pressure on myself, as I look at it, to name a starting quarterback in a timetable manner," Harbaugh said. ... The 49ers still aren't sure if injured wide receiver Michael Crabtree (foot) will be healthy enough to play in the opener. Crabtree remains on the team's physically unable to perform list but is no longer wearing a protective boot.

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