Following Frank: Miller and Hunter emulating Gore
Frank Gore has been getting some youthful help in the backfield during the 49ers’ surprising run to a 5-1 start. But the rookies who have emerged to complement the two-time Pro Bowler in San Francisco’s punishing ground game give all the credit to the veteran leader that both look up to and are trying to emulate.
“Frank’s a great running back, and I’m just learning from him, you know?” Kendall Hunter told NinersDigest in the 49ers’ locker room Friday afternoon. “He’s teaching me, I’m learning, and I just try to keep going off that.”
Bruce Miller stood next to Hunter, listening to the conversation with wide eyes. It wasn’t long before San Francisco’s only rookie starter was chiming in with his thoughts on the team’s recent rushing revival of which Gore has been the catalyst.
“Every aspect of the game, he’s one of the best at it,” Miller said. “He makes it easy on me. You just have to get out there, get in front of somebody and move your feet, and Frank makes the block for you almost. He does a great job, and he makes you want to work hard for him.”
Both rookies have been working hard and doing their part to lift a surging San Francisco ground attack that was struggling before each took on a bigger role in the operation – Miller as the starting fullback and Hunter getting a larger share of carries at tailback.
It has given Gore many reasons to smile in October, a month during which he has produced one of the best three-game stretches of his career.
But Gore is smiling more these days because the 49ers are off to their best start in his seven years with the team, with Gore once again playing a central role in the offense. The veteran was the driving force behind the four-game winning streak the Niners took into their bye week.
Gore was terrific in the three games leading up to the bye, rushing for 393 yards on 50 carries in wins over the Eagles, Buccaneers and Lions. With Hunter and Miller complementing Gore in the backfield, the 49ers have climbed to sixth in the NFL in rushing offense despite ranking 27th in the league in total offense.
San Francisco’s pounding ground game will get another stern test this week when the 49ers host Cleveland and the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense. The Browns lead the NFL in passing defense, which means the Niners may need to turn once again to their running game to get things going – and keep them going – on offense.
“I just hope we keep everything going the same and pick up from where we left off with the Detroit game,” Gore said. “I know we’re up for it. We’ve gotten better as an offense and as a team, and things just started happening for us in the run game.”
They weren’t happening when the season began. Gore had 148 yards rushing and was averaging just 2.5 per carry after three September games, when San Francisco’s struggling offense ranked 32nd in the league.
It has been a completely different story in three October games after the 49ers started getting Hunter and Miller more involved in the offense. Gore has rushed for 125 yards or more in three consecutive games and has climbed to eighth in the NFL with 541 yards rushing.
Miller, the team’s seventh-round draft pick, took over as the starting fullback in Week 3 at Cincinnati after veteran Moran Norris broke his leg. That was the same week Hunter picked up the slack for a hurting Gore in the second half and rushed for the game’s only touchdown to spark a comeback 13-8 victory over the Bengals.
The 49ers haven’t lost since, with Hunter producing 100 yards from scrimmage the next week during a 24-23 upset in Philadelphia. The Niners have continued to set the tempo offensively with a bruising and diverse ground game that saw the Gore/Hunter tailback combination produce 190 rushing yards in a 48-3 blowout of Tampa Bay and 174 the next week in a 25-19 upset at Detroit.
San Francisco finished with more rushing yards than passing yards in each of those two games.
“It’s a new system for all of us, and we’re still learning,” Miller said.
“We learn more every day, and now guys are believing in each other and the system and we’re all starting to play for each other. That’s put together a pretty powerful machine that we’re running the ball with right now.”
Gore has been the engine driving the machine, but the two rookie backs have been much more than just a couple of spare tires.
Miller has made a difference with his blocking, and his five receptions are one more than San Francisco’s fullbacks recorded the entire season last year.
Hunter, San Francisco’s fourth-round draft pick, has made even more of an impact. He has 162 yards rushing during the four-game winning streak and has carried the ball at least eight times in each game during that span. That has helped keep Gore fresh and also added a new dimension to the offense with Hunter’s speed and explosiveness.
“We’ve got some good running backs here and we’re all just working hard and really pushing each other,” said Hunter, who leads all San Francisco running backs with 74 yards receiving. “Then we just go out there and take advantage of our opportunities.”
The opportunities should continue to grow with Gore flourishing and the rookies maturing rapidly around him.
Gore is counting on it. After missing the playoffs and never finishing with a winning record in each of his first six seasons in San Francisco, Gore sat on a stool in front of his locker Friday and told NinersDigest he expects the running game to take this group of 49ers places it never has been before.
“It’s the first time in my career I’ve been in a situation like this, playing for a winning team that’s got a chance to go where we want to go,” Gore said. “I’m pretty happy about that. Now that we’ve had a little success, we have to always remember where we’ve been before and keep grinding and keep working and try to get better every day to get to that level we’ve never been before.”
Of course, Gore’s rookie partners in the backfield know no better. They’ve been part of nothing but positive growth and winning with the 49ers.
“And we want to keep that going,” Miller said. “I think we’re developing each and every week. We’ve gotten better and better every time we step on the field. That’s helping us develop as players in our offense.”
Not to mention helping Gore be the ringleader of a rushing attack that’s taking the 49ers places and keeps getting tougher and tougher to stop.