Probably the most observed position in the upcoming 49er training camp on July 25th will be the running back position based on the uncertainty of a clear cut front runner for the starting position.
Two-years have passed with the rehabilitation of veteran running back Garrison Hearst, his performance in mini-camps have raised the hopes of both the coaching staff and the fans that hold close the notion of Hearst once again pounding into the end zone come September.
So many questions still need to be answered come training camp, so many players still are in battle neck in neck for potential starting positions. The heat of the competition will be intense as training camp approaches. Even players such as Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia will be carefully scrutinized, along with number one draft pick defensive end Andre Carter will be expected to perform admirably right out of the gate.
The need for Garrison Hearst is also bearing fruit as the running backs currently in the fold are mostly still unproven, Hearst was very close to being a cap casualty last year. But the 49er's stored him away as an insurance policy that they anticipate to cash in on this season with Charlie Garner declaring mutiny and jumping ship over to the Oakland Raiders.
The front office and the coaching staff have admired Hearst as he has clearly made sound improvements on the field in regards to his sudden cutbacks and slashes he has demonstrated on the field so far. Now it is time for the pads to go on and the real hits to begin starting in training camp come July 25th.
One indication of Hearst's strengthened condition was in a mini-camp after-the-catch collision with rookie linebacker Jamie Winborn. Winborn sent Hearst to the ground, Hearst popped right back up, and the significance of this in regards to his long anticipated comeback was the tone of his voice and the force of his words.
"There was no concern," Hearst said of the play, in which Winborn sliced into his legs, violating the mini-camp light contact rules. "The only concern is, he better not touch me like that anymore or I'll touch him back in a way he's not going to be real fond of."
Certainly these are not the words of a running back scared to face the music after sitting on the bench for two years reluctantly. Hearst participated in every practice and every drill in this mini-camp since wrecking his left ankle in his first carry in the 49er's second round playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 9, 1999.
Even though second-year running back Paul Smith entered mini-camps as the anticipated starter, his status just became jeopardized with the emergence of Garrison Hearst's sudden burst of accomplishments.
Even Head Coach Steve Mariucci acknowledged that the doors to the competition have been flung open with Hearst's improvements on the field, as his aggressiveness up the middle has been a well observed factor. Hearst stands at a distinct advantage because he can provide immediate knowledge of the offense and still has game-breaking speed.
You can all bet on the horses that Garrison Hearst has the date of training camp well circled on his calendar, for it is here where he will make a heroic stand in the face of all his troubled adversity and compete for the anointed starting position.
If he can hold up in the full-tilt, two-a-day hell that is training camp, all the smart money will be placed on Hearst for the first carry in the first game this coming pre-season. Hearst when he was at the top ran for 1,570-yards in one season.
"He still has the burst, you know?" Wide receiver Terrell Owens said. "I know how he looked going through the holes when he wasn't hurt. At this point, you really can't tell the difference."
All the football critic's and skeptic's had Garrison Hearst written off about a year and a half ago, as he went through multiple surgeries and miles of rehabilitation to get his ankle back to normalcy. The excruciating pain and misery he has had to endure both mentally and physically have to be astounding, for it is perseverance that prevailed and sure bravery in the face of adversity.
It has to be truly amazing for not only fans but also his fellow players as well to see him in such rare form, as he stands outside the locker room after practice sweating and smiling with the rest of the team. Even asking and answering questions no one thought would be possible on his behalf.
"A lot of people wrote me off, but the Big Man Upstairs took care of me, and I'm back again," Hearst said. Presumably not referring to Walsh. "Actually, I never thought I was gone."
"I do feel great. Just being on the field, doing drills, doing things again; I'm not jumping too far. Just trying to take each day at a time. Just get better every day. I'm learning news stuff and just getting back in the mode of football."
The prognosis for Hearst was not one of certainty for the 49er's right before the April NFL Draft, in fact the 49er's were not even anticipating him returning at all again this year. The front office was satisfied in just realizing he would continue to work hard in his rehabilitation. But after his mini-camp display hopes have soared.
"He seems to have a little bounce in his step." Mariucci said. "He feels good about his chances, he's smiling and he's loud and he's funny. I think he's in some ways pretty optimistic."
Mariucci was not without caution in his statement though as he realizes more than anyone does at how long a road Garrison has had to come to get to where he is today. He has steadfastly believed in Garrison in making a comeback and has applauded his presence in the locker room.
"We've got to see how it holds up now in two-a-days in training camp. He's not done that forever, for two years. So we'll see. We're just going to give it every opportunity to be healthy and to stay healthy."
There has been no specific pain as of late in his ankle, only the general soreness that accompanies his daily workouts and practices with other players on the field. Garrison Hearst having win the NFL comeback player of the year award in 1995 (after a left knee injury, he gained 1,070-yards for the Arizona Cardinals) knows no words but up, as he is prepared to do whatever it takes to compete for the starting position at running back.
He understands the decision will not be ultimately his, and that the fans themselves will have a big weight in his comeback trail. He has prepared himself for that. After all Garrison has been through this much hell in two plus years, he is certainly able to adjust to what life will throw his way now.
"My thing is to continue to do what I'm doing, and hopefully I'm making strides where they can be confident in saying, "OK, Garrison's doing well enough that we feel like he's going to be a big contributor." That's where I want to be."
The one catch to Garrison's sudden return is the fact that two of his veteran teammates since he last played are now gone, that being Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Life will seem a little odd especially after being so close to a Super Bowl back in 1998.
"It is weird' those were two guys I looked at when I came in here, saying, "Man, I get to play with these guys," Hearst said. "Now I'm coming back to play again, they're not here."
The 49er's will test Hearst in training camp and should he succeed there he will be in every pre-season game to prove his strength and durability. Their investment in waiting for him to rehabilitate needs to bear some fruit and soon. Hearst will need to comeback, as a full-time starter if the 49er's is to keep him; they are not interested in playing him just on a part-time basis.
The reasoning is because his contract is top-heavy with easy-to-make incentives and also because the club wants to give rookie Kevan Barlow and last year's fifth-round draft pick, Paul Smith, a look. In all honesty should he not be able to beat these two out the chances of cutting him increase. The battle has just begun at this position, expect it to be very interesting as training camp unfolds.
"We have to put a fence around our tailback situation and see who's healthy," Mariucci said. "We'll spread their reps out in camp and pre-season games to find out whom of that group will really be the guy, or if we are going to share the load."
Second-year back Paul Smith, who sat out one practice due to a sprained hamstring, is penciled in as the starter, however with one strong showing in the upcoming training camp that runs from July 25th-August 18th will really contort that situation. Add in third-round draft pick Kevan Barlow whom is recovering well from a April 30th knee surgery and we have a triple threat match for the starting position wrestle-mania style.
The 49er's have also added Second-year running back Jonas Lewis and XFL product Saladin McCullough to the mix to make the decision that much more compelling. The 49er's are very serious about finding substance to this question.
"I constantly have to prove myself. That's all right. That's just the way it's always been," Lewis said. "Knowing the fact I can play special teams in this league puts my mind a little at ease. But my intention is to break into the backfield and get playing time there."
Said McCullough: "I think I have a good chance (to make the team). When pads get on (in training camp), that'll separate everybody."
Needless to say the running back position will carry a lot of attention, another position that seems rather fragile is the 49er kicking game, here the 49er's have allowed themselves to be vulnerable with the release of Wade Richey to the San Diego Chargers.
Of the kickers that are in camp and being given serious consideration are Jose Cortez an XFL player with the Los Angeles Extreme which by the way went on to win the championship in that league's very short lifespan.
And there is Jamie Rheem a rookie from Kansas State and two-time runner-up for the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the most productive kicker in college football. These two players along with James Tuthill, who is presently in NFL Europe attempting to improve, are the top candidates to replace departed Wade Richey, who signed a five-year, $6 million with the Chargers.
Both Cortez and Rheem's fate lie in their performance at training camp for they could be waived should neither turn in an impressive performance. The 49er's have already compiled a list of potential free agents that are out there looking for work. Should either of them struggle even a little you could very well see a signing happen with a veteran free agent kicker.
"They've got to prove that they can handle the heat and pressure," Mariucci said. "If they can't, then we'll have to consider bringing in a veteran."
Special Teams Coach Bruce DeHaven has expressed satisfaction so far with both players, and believes that one of them will come out and prove themselves come training camp and pre-season.
"I like both of those kids," said DeHaven. "Both kicked very well. Of the nine kicks (attempted on a Saturday), both of them were 7-for-9, which is pretty good. We started them out with no experience on the professional level. We'll see if they are able to do it."
Both of these athletes are in the same situation as Wade Richey was at the start of his career, both have limited or no professional experience. But on the other hand both have displayed enough talent to be seriously considered. Given the correct setting one or both could prosper in the 49er roster.
Based on his college career, Rheem could have the greatest upside of the two. A big man at 6-foot-2 with a powerful leg, Rheem was a player a number of teams, including the 49er's, considered draft worthy.
One of the most critical positions a team has the kicker determines the outcome of many games with the one swift motion of his leg. The 49er's have a history of winning many close games with the assistance of a quality kicker, that still will be the case as they head into the 2001 season. Wade Richey even though he struggled a little last season was often very lethal in close games; his presence will be surely missed.
Rheem followed Tampa Bay place-kicker Martin Gramatica at Kansas State. And he filled in admirably, making 35 of 41 field goals his last two seasons, including a 57-yarder during his junior year. After such a productive career with the Wildcats, Rheem had visions of being a mid-round draft pick. As the rounds passed without his name being mentioned, he began to consider another option, signing with a team as a rookie free agent.
Rheem has been one of those young players with dreams and aspirations of playing in the National Football League. His hard work and concentration on his unique specialty place kicking is what he is banking on to become a 49er. The enticement of playing for San Francisco is also a prestigious enigma in his mind as he is thankful to be auditioning for such a classy team as the 49er's.
"I was saying, going into the draft, that if I didn't go one-through-four or early five, our whole idea was to maybe not get drafted and fall through and go to place where I think I have the best opportunity out there," Rheem said.
Then General Manager Bill Walsh called Rheem on the last day of the draft and asked him if he would come to the 49er's as a free agent and try-out for the kicker position. Rheem was delighted and took the offer enthusiastically. "There were a couple of other teams interested," Rheem said. "Getting drafted or not, to be it's not about the signing bonus. It's about playing the next year. I felt like this was going to be the best opportunity to come in and compete. I'm not really coming in here trying to take away someone's spot. There's going to be two or three of us here. I know I have a lot of hard work, but I think it was the best situation for me."
The Xtreme Football League's number one kicker Jose Cortez came about to the 49er's in a totally different set of circumstances. In 1999 Jose Cortez was invited and participated in the San Diego Chargers training camp, but he failed to stick, was released and went back to work as a roofer in Corvallis, Oregon. He didn't give up his dream of kicking professional, though. Cortez continued to work out in the evenings and wait for a call to duty from a professional football team.
When he did answer one day it was not a NFL team on the other end of the line. It happened to be a representative of the new Xtreme Football League's Los Angeles Extreme franchise, which offered a $40,000 salary and a chance to improve on his specialty.
His experience with the XFL was started on very shaky ground. He missed three of his first five kicks, and then Cortez settled in and converted 20 of 25 field goals. He made all four of his attempts in the XFL's championship game against the San Francisco Demons.
What did Cortez get for an award? A share of the $1 million dollar pot the entire team split, which equaled to about $22,222, that is what you won as the XFL champion. And he received a chance to audition for the 49er's.
"I enjoyed playing in the XFL," said Cortez, 25. "The salary was good. I wasn't going to make that kind of money as a roofer. It's given me a chance to keep playing."
49er's coach Steve Mariucci said. "They've got to prove to us they can handle the heat and handle the pressure. If not, we'll consider a veteran guy."
Someone will have to come up to the plate and produce, as the 49er's still are not convinced at who they will pay to take Wade Richey's place. Someone will have to make the endless field goals under immense pressure in the swirling winds at Candlestick Park better known as 3-Com. Someone will have to pound kickoffs into the end zone with consistency and accuracy or be subjected to the endless catcalls, boo's and hatred of 49er fans should you dare to fail.
The next order of business for the 49er's is establishing someone that will excel on special teams as a kick return specialist. And here the 49er's went out and auditioned yet again some interesting candidates after veteran Kevin Williams failed to make an adequate improvement for us in this area of need.
When Steve Mariucci pulled out his roster one Sunday and was asked what un-drafted rookies impressed him over the team's opening spring mini-camp. He exclaimed: "What, you think I just know them all off the top of my head?" He asked.
It was hard to fault him for at that time, the 49er's had more than 100 players suited up for their first mini-camp, the bulk coming from 37 un-drafted rookies.
Most of these players will be cut by the end of July, when the 49er's will be forced to trim their roster to about 80 or so players for full training camp. But there is one player who would be voted "Most Likely to Succeed" is kick-return specialist David Allen, a return pro at Kansas State two years ago before he was sidelined by an ankle injury last year.
The reason Allen was not drafted was due to the ankle injury he suffered and because he doesn't offer much as an undersized running back. But one thing he is proven in is returns. Some wonder why he picked San Francisco after the team ignored him despite having five picks in the sixth and seventh rounds. But he sounds off with confidence when asked.
"They don't have a return man;" he smiled, giving an obvious answer. "That's my opportunity to get on the football field as quickly as possible. Plus, there are so many young people on this team. You know they're not afraid to play a rookie."
What are Allen's credentials? He led the nation in punt return yardage in 1998 when he returned four for touchdowns. He had a total of seven return touchdowns throughout his first three college seasons before his disappointing senior year.
What is even more peculiar is the fact that the 49er's went into the draft without a single punt return candidate on their roster, they did speak with Allen even before the draft commenced. Explaining that they would love to have him if he went un-drafted. Mariucci has gone on to say that the 49er's couldn't afford to draft him, since the running back position wasn't a need for the team. However the sweat began to role as the final 20 or so picks went by.
An injury plagued senior season during which he missed five games and played sparingly in others caused David Allen to suddenly drop off draft boards. However it did not deter the 49er's from having legitimate interest at what he had accomplished right up to his senior year. His returning punts are recorded as ranking with the best in NCAA history.
"He was a guy we considered in the seventh round and we got a little nervous with him being there (afterward)," 49er's coach Steve Mariucci said. "We kept our fingers crossed. We'd made contact before the draft, so he knew we wanted him."
As a sophomore at Kansas State, Allen returned 33 punts for a staggering 730-yards (22.1 yards per return) and four touchdowns. The following season he averaged 13.9-yards and had two more touchdowns. He averaged 10.3-yards on 12 returns as a senior.
"I never even returned punts in high school, but it was the quickest way on the field in college," Allen said. "I practiced every day. We had a good return team, things started clicking and the next thing you know it was boom, boom, boom, one return after another."
If there is any area the 49er's have suffered the most in my opinion it has been on special teams, even though the pass rush is right up there a great punt return specialist ranks first.
Veteran Kevin Williams averaged a measly 8.5-yards per return with along of 25-yards on 26 returns last season. In previous seasons before that the position was manned by R.W. McQuarters, Ibeanyi Uwaezuoke and Dexter Carter. Williams is a free agent and will not be resigned. And Uwaezuoke and Carter in particular, showed only occasional explosiveness, but were a liability in handling the ball.
When thinking about it, it has to sink in that the 49er's really need to step this up considerably, we have ignored this part of the offense and taken it for granted much too long. In order to round out the total offensive arsenal, it is special teams where you want to begin with.
Of the 10 longest punt returns in club history, only one, a 78-yarder by Carter in 1995, has occurred since the beginning of the 1990 season. This is proof that the area of need is really here. So let's hope that David Allen can jump-start this anemic return area for good to better than normal.
In another apparent shot of adrenalin in the spirit of competition Quarterback Jeff Garcia was able to accomplish yet another milestone in the off-season with his fanatical approach to conditioning for the upcoming season. In an annual 49er's ritual, the entire team gathered for a test of endurance after the final day of practice; the "beep test," in which players run in consecutive 20-yard intervals until they give up or fail to beat the "beeps." The beeps start slow but speed up as the test goes on.
Running to jeers of "fresh legs," quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Rick Mirer were the final men left standing before Mirer finally dropped out after 125 runs. Garcia ran No. 126 for his second consecutive victory in the event.
"Some guys take it more seriously than others. It's not a big deal," said Garcia, whom Mariucci called a workout fanatic who "lives" at the training facility. "The quarterbacks aren't running as much as the other guys during mini-camp. But with the way I've worked to get myself in shape, when I get a chance to show it, Ii always take a lot of pride in that and do it to the fullest."
Meanwhile the series of rebuilding phases that have taken place to improve our overall defense is starting to actually bear fruit. 49er's rookie linebacker Jamie Winborn looks really impressive on the field as of late, unfortunately, it will still be some time before he gets a chance to make a tackle with impunity.
After whacking Garrison Hearst to the ground in one practice, the coaching staff had to remind Winborn that the goal is for everyone to remain on their feet during these non-padded of-season practices.
When Winborn put the hit on Hearst everyone was silent until Hearst bounced back up and returned to the huddle, after having a few words with Winborn. Seemingly, undeterred, Winborn went right out and tossed down wide receiver Terrell Owens a few minutes later. His aggressiveness will be an asset on the field this season; just hope he does not over due it to the point it costs us yardage.
Although Coach Steve Mariucci does not like to see such early forms of aggression against the first-team offense, he has indicated he is pleased so far of what he has seen. From what he has seen he has no reason to not believe that the defense will be much improved over last season.
"We'll be younger, but hopefully we'll have a fast defense, an aggressive defense, better than last year," Mariucci said. "I can sense we're a better defense just going through these mini-camps. I can see the team speed is good."
The very keys that will open the doors for the 49er's this season will be what is happening with the development of their newly revamped defense. It is here where they need to step it up in order to have aspirations of playoff contention. Only defensive tackle Bryant Young and safety Lance Schulters figure to be starting for the 49er's for a third straight season.
"We'd like to have more wins, obviously," said Mariucci, whose team went 6-10 last season. "Without making any predictions, I think we have a chance to do that." "We will be younger on defense than we were last year. The eight rookies on defense who started last year will have benefited from that and they will play as second-year players. But were going to add a couple rookies to the starting lineup. You're going to see Andre Carter and Jamie Winborn starting for us."
So the coming of full contact training camp will begin where every athlete that is in a 49er practice jersey and shorts will be hoping to wear that same jersey and shorts as an employee of the San Francisco 49er's.
I am excited to see this developing and eager to hear of the surprises that will come our way as they all workout and lay claim to their respected positions on the roster as a whole. It will again be a much more bit of an eye opener as the veterans of Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ken Norton Jr., Winfred Tubbs and Charlie Garner will not be there. But so is the ugly reality of its time to move on to a new era in 49er history.
All the groundwork has been laid and the frame has been erected, it is now time to finish the inside of our house and unleash its newfound talent. San Francisco remains a champion and will always be a champion it is what we live, breath and ultimately die for, there are no fans more devoted to the cause than our very own.