Stating their case

Hunter made strong statement as team's No. 2 back

The 49ers finished a rocky exhibition season on the upswing Thursday night during a 20-17 victory at San Diego, and so did several players who were either fighting for a roster berth or fighting for a defined role in the team's 2011 game plan. Here's a look at several individuals who made a statement with their play in the finale with NFL-mandated cuts to a final 53-man roster looming Saturday.

RB Kendall Hunter: The rookie already had secured a roster berth with his previous play this summer, but he took it a step further after being the first San Francisco running back to touch the football Thursday. The fourth-round draft pick had 46 yards rushing on the game's opening possession, ripping of a 21-yard gain on third down that showed all the elements of his game – great vision, quick acceleration into the hole and ability to break free into the open field. Hunter finished the game as the NFL's leading preseason rusher with 231 yards on 35 carries, a 6.6 average, and he went a long way toward securing the No. 2 role at halfback behind starter Frank Gore. "He's definitely playing well enough to be the No. 2 back," coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. "I think he just gets better and better the more he's in this style of offense." Hunter also continued to display that he's more than just a weapon on offense – he returned a kickoff 51 yards after San Diego's first touchdown. "I feel the preseason went pretty good," Hunter said, "but I still have got some work to do and there's a lot of room for improvement, so I'm just going to keep working. It means a lot for us young guys to show all the coaches what we can do. I'm just going to try to take advantage of every opportunity I get and work every day to get better." So far, so good for San Francisco's offensive star of the exhibition season.

QB Alex Smith: It might have been a rather mild statement, but Smith's efficient performance showed everybody that he can indeed make things happen and move the ball in the West Coast offense, a system that has always seemed to fit his skills. Smith got rid of the ball quickly and knew where to go with it while completing 8 of 10 passes and leading the 49ers to touchdowns on both of the two possessions he played. Not only did Smith end the preseason on a much-needed high note, but he left no question that he will be the starter this season, not that much question really remained. "I'm pretty sure we can say that," Harbaugh said. "He played with a very cool head and made good decisions. He played the way you want him to out there – calm, cool, collected." The 49ers converted four third-down situations during Smith's two drives, with him passing for first downs on two of them. "It was a great way to end the preseason," Smith said. "We definitely wanted to get the taste out of our month from last week (against Houston). Get some rhythm, convert on some third downs, move some chains and hopefully put points on the board, and we were able to do that. We were able to get some red zone, got some short yardage, some situational football that we need more practice at (and) we got some. So, yeah, it was all good."

WR Kyle Williams: San Francisco's leading receiver of the exhibition season locked down a roster berth with more standout play, again showing his run-after-the-catch burst on a 20-yard reception. Williams finished the preseason with seven receptions for 105 yards, a healthy 15.0 average, and also displayed that he's a capable option in the return game.

OLB Aldon Smith: After tailing off a bit the past two weeks following his standout NFL debut in the preseason opener, Smith assembled a breakout performance that signals he indeed is a youngster to watch this season who could become a force in the San Francisco defense. The first-round draft pick finished with game-high totals of seven tackles, 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits in a dominant performance. "With Aldon, I saw him playing with some passion and emotion, and the light's coming on more and more," Harbaugh said. And if Thursday's game was any indication, the light will be going off more and more this year for opposing quarterbacks.

DE Demarcus Dobbs: The performance by this undrafted rookie might have been the best anyone has seen lately by a defender whose name wasn't even listed on the game statistics sheet because he was credited with no official tackles or other defensive plays of any kind. But that actually belied a big night by Dobbs during which he continually pushed back San Diego offensive linemen. Dobbs was directly responsible for several of the plays finished off by Aldon Smith, and he likely solidified a roster spot with another fine preseason performance. Smith's first sack was recorded after Dobbs shoved Chargers left guard Colin Baxter into Scott Tolzien, causing the quarterback to stumble and allowing Smith to finish him off for an eight-yard loss. Dobbs and Smith later collaborated on a stunt during which Smith got past Baxter for his second sack. Dobbs also created havoc when Smith and Antwan Applewhite shared a sack in the third quarter. Replays also seemed to indicate that Dobbs was responsible for knocking the ball away from San Diego running back Jordan Todman for a fumble recovered by the 49ers in the second quarter.

ILB Alex Joseph: A long-shot to make the final roster because of the team's logjam of talent at inside linebacker, Joseph made his presence felt and improved his chances of sticking with his play on both defense and special teams. Joseph, a first-year player who spent time on San Francisco's practice squad last year, had several big hits while recording three tackles, a forced fumble and another tackle on special teams. "He really played a very physical football game," Harbaugh said. "He definitely makes it (final roster decisions) difficult."

ILB NaVorro Bowman: With his trifecta on San Diego's opening offensive possession – an 11-yard sack of QB Billy Volek, which saw Bowman strip Volek of the ball and then fall on the fumble to set up San Francisco's second touchdown – the second-year linebacker continued to show that he could be more than just a complementary player this year in San Francisco's defense, while also continuing to demonstrate he will be a more than adequate replacement for the departed Takeo Spikes next to Patrick Willis in the middle of San Francisco's 3-4 defense. "We knew we weren't going to play too long," Bowman said of the first-unit defense, "but the little bit that we were in there, we wanted to make a statement." In Bowman's case, consider that done.

QB Josh McCown: After not playing a snap previously in the preseason, McCown stepped right into action late in the third quarter and looked like he belonged, completing all four of his passes for 51 yards – including a 33-yarder – while directing the 49ers on a 71-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter and finishing with a passer rating of 118.8. McCown's poised and polished showing in his first NFL action since 2009 suggested that the 49ers will be just fine with him as their veteran-insurance, No.3 quarterback and won't have to go searching for another one of those after Saturday's final cuts.

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