Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers in their 20-17 win over San Diego in Thursday's…
Breakout performance just a start for Hunter
After establishing himself as the game's offensive star with 105 yards rushing on just nine carries, including a signature 53-yard sprint to the end zone that put the 49ers in command early in the second half, Hunter fielded just as many questions about his upending block in pass protection on a blitzing Raider defender than he did about his eye-opening performance as a rusher.
Hunter appeared unimpressed with his rushing total, which after two 1,500-yard seasons at Oklahoma State probably seems to come naturally to the Niners' fourth-round draft pick. But Hunter's eyes brightened when asked about how a diminutive 5-foot-7 tailback can get the best of bigger, hard-charging defenders.
"You can't play here unless you're able to block and you're able to blitz pickup," Hunter said. "That's the biggest thing. Ever since I started playing college football, the biggest thing is picking up the blitz. You have to study, and keep studying until you get better. Blitz pickup is your biggest thing. If you can't block and don't know your assignments… Hey, tough luck."
Blitz pickup obviously was a prominent issue in 49ers training camp last week after the team allowed six sacks to an aggressive, blitzing New Orleans Saints defense in the Niners' Aug. 12 preseason opener. There have been questions whether Hunter could handle the responsibility, but he addressed those concerns in fine order Saturday.
"I was pleased with his block, the one in particular where he took it head on and got in a great football position, got low and executed the pass protection very nicely," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Tom (running backs coach Tom Rathman) has him working on that quite a bit, pass protection in practice, and he's done considerably well."
If Hunter can handle those responsibilities like he did Saturday, he could be on his way to earning a defined role within San Francisco's offense this season. Because the kid sure looks like he can handle the other part.
Hunter had a few nice runs in the opener against New Orleans, when he also was San Francisco's leading rusher among running backs with 29 yards, but his Candlestick Park debut Saturday truly was the rookie's coming-out party.
When NinersDigest asked Harbaugh during his day-after conference call Sunday if Hunter could add a dimension to San Francisco's offense this year that Harbaugh wasn't quite expecting, the coach replied:
"He's definitely got the ability and the license to do that. He's had a career of going from a spread offense to running between the tackles, running power plays, running isolation plays, running toss sweeps that are really foreign to him, but he's picking it up really quickly and that's really encouraging for our ball club.
"He's coming from a background as a running back that is not similar to the one he's doing now. In terms of what we're asking him to do, I think he's progressing very nicely and just getting better every day. He could definitely emerge into someone who could be a real contributor for us."
The emergence was in full bloom Saturday from the moment Hunter got his first carry, a seven-yard burst up the middle late in the first quarter. Hunter followed that on the very next play with a 16-yard dash over left guard, but that run was called back by a holding penalty, or else Hunter would have had even bigger stats.
Undeterred, Hunter sprung loose for a 16-yard run midway through the second quarter, his final carry in the first half. Of course, he was just getting started.
On San Francisco's second offensive play after halftime, Hunter took the ball moving right, then abruptly cut toward the line, finding a seam over right tackle and then squirting through a narrow opening to break into open field. Once there, Hunter cut across the middle and was off to the races, easily dusting Oakland defenders to the end zone to complete the game's longest play.
Like he did in the preseason opener, Hunter showed excellent vision in identifying an opening and then decisiveness in attacking it.
"In the NFL, if there's a hole there, and you don't hit it there, then you're not going to get through there," Hunter said. "You can't tap your feet too long at this level. If the hole is there, you can't wait. I was able to see a little crease, and I hit it."
Hunter hit it for a home run as he continues to level the playing field with counterparts Anthony Dixon and Xavier Omon – who both outweigh him by at least 30 pounds – in the competition for playing time behind lead back Frank Gore.
But Hunter, San Francisco's leading rusher in the preseason with 134 yards and an 8.4 average, said his breakout performance is just a start. He's still learning the game as it's coming to him – and obviously, it's coming to him fast.
"My biggest adjustment right now is still just everything," Hunter said with a smile and a shrug. "There's a lot to learn, new terminology and stuff like that, and with new coaches, you just have to adjust and learn everybody and get used to everybody.
"It's a new beginning here. You have to work hard every day and night, you can't take a day off up here. It's good to get that (big performance Saturday), but that game's over with. Now it's time to go back to work."