Kendall Hunter was projected to redshirt his freshman season at Oklahoma State. It didn't take coaches long to discover that they would be playing the pint-size running back from Tyler, Texas. His role was undetermined. But he would play. Hunter made that big an impression during two-a-days.
When Dantrell Savage, who went on to have a great season, missed a couple of September games, Hunter seized the opportunity.
So don't be surprised if Hunter again reminds everyone not to underestimate his value, even though he must compete for playing time in one of the NFL's deepest running back stables.
San Francisco's feature back is three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore. In the offseason the 49ers signed Giants veteran Brandon Jacobs and drafted Oregon star LaMichael James.
Hunter, though, remains in the 49ers' plans. They saw enough his rookie season that they will find a role for a player deemed “too small” by the Texas Longhorns who has proved that you can't judge his overall game by his height (5-foot-7).
The NFL was the final proving ground. Projected a year ago to go as high as the second round of the draft, Hunter fell to the fourth round, the 10th running back selected, the 115th overall selection.
“It just motivates you, makes you work hard,” Hunter said in a phone interview with The Oklahoman. “No matter what you do, you're going to have that, someone doubting you. All you can do is show what kind of person you are, what kind of football player you are.”
Early reports indicate the 'Niners want to utilize all their backs, reducing Gore's workload. Jacobs will be a short-yardage specialist. James' head is spinning after switching from the Ducks' spread attack to Jim Harbaugh's I formation. In time, James' role will be similar to Hunter's.
“Competition is good, not just for the running backs but the whole team,” Hunter said. “It basically comes down to how you compete, try to make the most of your opportunities and try to get better every day.”
That's a typical Hunter response.
Known to take a quick nap before games, Hunter always has been a little-talk, play-hard running back. San Francisco media noted last season that Hunter might have set a franchise record for answering 10 questions in under three minutes.
“That's just how he is,” said OSU coach Mike Gundy. “He has no ego. He works at it. He has such a good demeanor, a good work ethic. He never says anything. People like that. He keeps his mouth shut and is reliable.”
Size isn't everything
Hunter was taller than most of his classmates until middle school. He never grew another inch while others shot past him. Hunter, though, constantly has displayed a work ethic that ultimately allows him to showcase a hard-nosed, electric skill set.
OSU assistant Joe Wickline was high on Hunter from the start. The day Gundy showed up in east Texas, it took only a few plays to commit to offering a scholarship to a player who can stop on a dime with breakaway speed, a potential difference maker.
And Hunter has been a difference maker.
* At John Tyler, he broke NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell's career high school rushing record.
* Hunter ended his college career as the fifth leading rusher (4,181 yards) in Big 12 history. One year, he led the league in rushing by more than 30 yards a game. He's fourth in OSU history behind Thurman Thomas, Terry Miller and David Thompson.
* His rookie season with the 'Niners, Hunter averaged 5.2 yards on 128 touches. After leading the league in rushing in the preseason, Hunter rushed for 473 yards and added 195 receiving yards on 16 catches.
“He's just so quick and shifty,” teammate Justin Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You think you've got him squared up and now he's over here. If you just look at him, you can tell he's quick.”
Durability usually is a concern for small backs. But Hunter weighs 199 pounds. And overcoming a potential career-ending injury revealed Hunter's inner drive.
His junior year at John Tyler, Hunter's right leg gruesomely was twisted. During surgery, doctors inserted a metal plate and screws in his right ankle. They informed him he might never play again. Hunter not only played, most of the 10,000 yards of total offense he's compiled occurred after that injury.
Gore has called Hunter “one tough little dude.” San Francisco teammates are impressed by a tenacious approach to one-on-one pass blocking drills.
Some even suggest being short has its advantages.
“I think so,” Hunter said, “especially when you come out of a pack and they really don't see you.”
Super Bowl contender
Hunter's rookie season turned out to be the ultimate “pleasant surprise” by NFL standards.
Coming off a 6-10 season, the 49ers were in the midst of a nine-year run of failing to post a winning season.
Led by a stout defense and an offense that hangs on to the ball, San Francisco finished 13-3, earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
When the Giants upset the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers hosted the NFC title game. They outplayed the Giants but were done in by a couple of muffed special teams fumbles.
“It was a great year, but it would have felt a lot better if we had gotten the win and played in the Super Bowl,” Hunter said. “Some things happened at the end that didn't allow that to happen. It just makes us all want to work harder to take that next step.”
Former 'Niner teammate Reggie Smith, a safety who played at OU and signed with Carolina in the offseason, predicts Hunter will continue to be part of the offense.
“He is really good and isn't that much different than Frank Gore,” Smith said. “Frank isn't going to take every single snap. I think they'll take more snaps off him and give them to Kendall or whoever else is in there.”
Hunter isn't into predictions or overanalyzing things.
“I'm just going to go out and have fun, playing a sport that I love.”
San Francisco's running depth slightly clouds Hunter's role. But as OSU coaches discovered during his first two-a-days, Hunter inevitably will show he can help a team win games. Without the fanfare. Working his tail off.
“I would guess someone says, ‘Let's put him in to give Gore a break,' and he hits a 17-yard run and then he catches a pass,” Gundy said. “What happens is when he does that somebody says, ‘You have to put him back in.'”