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“The linemen love him. He’s such a tough runner. I think the thing the guys appreciate about him is his vision,” Smith said. “But, you look at yards after contact, he’s such a great runner with that. He runs with such great pad level.”

Gore’s production is the primary reason the 49ers are riding a five-game winning streak into their game Sunday at Washington and off to the franchise’s best start since 1998.

His former Miami coach, Larry Coker, remembers when then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells called asking about Gore’s NFL potential.

“I told him Frank would be the best person you ever sign. The guy has tremendous character, smarts and perseverance. Frank will outwork everybody,” said Coker, now coaching Texas-San Antonio. “He was injured most of the time he was at Miami, but he never quit. He’s a tremendous running back. He’ll take a 2-yard loss and turn it into a 4-yard gain. He’s that type of player. Tremendous vision. Tremendous smarts. Tremendous character. I’m very proud of him and all he’s overcome.”

Gore walks through the locker room with a huge smile on his face and headphones over his ears most of the time, heading across the room to chat up linebacker Parys Haralson or making a point to razz youngsters like wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

“That’s my guy,” Haralson said of Gore. “Last year what happened to him, you hate to see that. But he’s a great running back. You knew he would come back and run the ball hard and give it all he’s got. There was never a doubt in my mind he could still do it. He gets the ball and he’s running hard. That’s what he does. Some of the holes he squeezes through, I wouldn’t even see them.”

Gore is having a blast being in games that matter this deep in the year. That’s a first for the seventh-year pro.

He has a new approach.

“Before, just going out there and worrying about stats and trying to get to the Pro Bowl,” he said. “Now, you’re getting stats and also winning, and people have started noticing how good of a team we have. That’s real big. I’m happy.”

Gore matched his career high with 31 carries and wound up with 134 yards in last Sunday’s 20-10 victory over the Browns. He moved by his friend and mentor, Roger Craig, for second place on the 49ers career rushing list, too.

Gore has 7,089 career yards rushing, leaving him 256 from surpassing the late Hall of Famer Joe Perry as San Francisco’s franchise leader. Perry, the first player with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and nicknamed “The Jet” for his sensational speed, died in April at age 84. The Niners are wearing helmet decals to honor him.

Gore has called it a goal to pass Perry, and at this rate he could do it within a few games _ perhaps right around the time the 49ers clinch the NFC West and their first playoff berth since 2002. San Francisco held a comfortable four-game division lead heading into November.

“I really don’t think about the rushing yards. Right now, I’m happy about the situation we’re in,” Gore said. “We’re 6-1 and we’re still growing and we’re still moving forward. That’s what I’m happy about.”

Craig has befriended Gore in recent years, even calling to regularly check in on him during his rehab back in Miami this offseason.

Craig, who refers to Gore as “Ferocious Frank,” was quick to congratulate Gore after his performance against Cleveland.

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