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After only two days of practice the 49ers received the kind of news every team hopes to avoid during Training Camp. Kendall Hunter, the number two running back in San Francisco, tore his ACL in practice.
The 49ers, perhaps more than any team are flush with talent at the running back spot. People will likely look towards second-round pick Carlos Hyde and the recovering Marcus Lattimore as a replacement.
However, in 2012 when Hunter tore his achilles, the team played Brandon Jacobs for one game before shifting to then-rookie LaMichael James. In 7 games, James rushed 38 times for 190 yards and a healthy 5.0 yards per carry. Looking at those numbers you would think James is the natural change-of-pace replacement for Hunter.
If you listen to us on the Better Rivals podcast, though, you know there is more to the numbers than meets the eye. In 2012 the 49ers were in the middle of their Super Bowl run and Greg Roman was actively hiding the veer (the 49ers flavor of option run) and inverted veers they would unleash on unsuspecting teams in the playoffs.
In the 4 final regular season games, James was used much like Hunter was used - as a change of pace back and outside runner. His numbers were nothing to write home about. In his most prolific statistical game, week 16 against Arizona, his numbers are lifted by a beautifully designed 26-yard counter play.
However, as you can see in the chart below, something happened in the playoffs and James' per-carry average went up significantly.
What happened? The option happened. Roman started unleashing the veer and inverted veer plays in the playoffs. Since James operated out of Chip Kelly's spread offense at Oregon he felt right at home. Because the team started putting James in situations that took advantage of his skill set, his per-carry average went up from just under 4 to nearly 7 yards-per-carry. This includes a touchdown scored on an inverted veer against Atlanta.
So what does this all mean for the Hunter-less 49ers? It means you should expect James will fill the role of change-of-pace back for the 49ers. Lattimore is simply not physically ready and Hyde is more of a Gore replacement than a change of pace back. Look at Hyde as more of a Boobie Dixon-type player in his first year.
If the team tries to put James solely in the Kendall Hunter box, running mostly outside zone plays or sweeps on the edge, expect more 8 carry for 30 yard performances. If, though, they mix in more option runs and get James in space, he can be a dangerous weapon for a team looking to close out the year with a Lombardi trophy. With a projected increase in 3-wide sets, we may see just that.