As I enter my 72nd season as a 49er Faithful, the team seems like it's finally ready to break out under Kyle Shanahan's leadership. One area of continuing concern, however, is the running back position. Over the past few seasons, injuries have taken quite a toll on the team's progress. Jerick McKinnon missed the entire season and his preseason appears iffy as his knee problems continue. Matt Breida's explosiveness was limited by repeated injuries, and the 49ers finally went to their undrafted special-teams star, Raheem Mostert, who took advantage of the opportunity to average 7.7 yards per carry including a 52-yard touchdown versus the Raiders and an excellent 87-yard performance against the Packers. Unfortunately, he broke his forearm against the Raiders which ended his breakout season as a running back.

Raheem, a track star in college, may well be the fastest 49er RB, a team blessed with several players with speed to burn. He has posted the fastest time of all the running backs in the 40 at 4.34. After returning nine kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in high school, Raheem returned 88 kickoffs for 2,289 yards for two touchdowns (99 and 100 yards) at Purdue where he was called "the fastest college player in the NCAA" by NFL.com.

As an undrafted free agent, he has been very effective returning kickoffs for the Eagles, Dolphins, Ravens, and Browns before landing with Chicago and being picked up by the 49ers. It is his acquisition from the Bears where his story becomes a case of deja vu for old-time 49er fans. In 1956, the 49ers acquired an obscure back, also from the Bears and also weighing 205 lbs. He was a 15th-round draft pick and a running back at heart who was relegated to playing linebacker, safety, and kickoff returner. His name was J.D. Smith, and in his first two seasons, the 49ers utilized him much the same as the Bears had. Finally, after bugging the coaching staff to let him play running back, he was inserted into the lineup in the next-to-last game of the season in 1958. J.D. responded by gaining 113 yards including an 80-yard touchdown scamper.

The following season he started at running back, supplanting Hugh McElhenny and responded with 1,036 yards gained and 10 touchdowns. He finished the season as the No. 2 back in yards gained, second only to the great Jim Brown. J.D. led the 49ers in rushing the next five seasons.

The similarities in the roads traveled by J.D. and Raheem are striking. Both were stars in college who were virtually ignored in the draft, and both were relegated to defense and kickoff returns in their first few seasons. Both were tough runners, good pass protectors, and both were terrific hitters on defense. Both weighed 205. J.D. was finally given a chance at running back and became a star. Raheem's breakout season was interrupted by his broken forearm last season. Will this be the year he becomes a star? I believe it will as Shanahan will recognize his greatness. Let's hope so.
  • Gary Mialocq
  • Written by:
    Native of SF. Attended Washington HIgh, CCSF and SF State University. Investor & Startup Business Consultant, Former Juvenile Detention Counselor, Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Self-employment Specialist, Real Estate Investor, Genealogist. Senior Pro Golfer.