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Hearst blessed as the starter but reserve tailbacks show great promise. 09/08/01 8:00 AM
After all the speculation and uncertainty about veteran running back Garrison Hearst, his status on the team was thought to be expendable due to salary cap restraints, his performance on the field just average and his durability projected to be a concern. Hearst was granted the wish he was praying for an announcement placing him as the starting running back of the San Francisco 49er’s.

Head Coach Steve Mariucci formally announced on Monday September 3rd, 2001 that the 49er’s would go with Garrison Hearst as their starting running back, despite the lingering questions that still surround him. Those questions will haunt him as he progresses throughout the season, and he knocks each one over as the season wears on.

The one glitch to Hearst’s elevation to the starting position is that rookie Kevan Barlow will be nipping him at his heels, he indicated that Barlow will relieve Hearst very often throughout the season, all in all sharing the duties at this position.

“Right now, the plan is to start Garrison and use (rookie) Kevan Barlow quite a bit because we’re committed to developing him as a tailback,” Mariucci said. “They’ll share that duty. We’re going to see a little running back by committee and we’ll find out if it’s worth a darn.”

The competition between these two tailbacks has been interesting, as I have followed their individual progress throughout training camp and all the pre-season games; both have displayed great promise. Garrison Hearst has had only average performances in his first three pre-season games; Kevan Barlow has out distanced him in overall yardage and total production.

The best news is that Hearst showed absolutely no ill effects from his injured ankle in any of these games, he bounced right back up after every hit and every fall. He simply has to wear away the rust that he has acquired over two and a half years of sidelining due to his career threatening injury.

“I don’t know there’s fulfillment being named the starter,” Hearst said. “As I play and hopefully things go well, I’ll get out of that than saying I’m the starter.”

It was thought just a few weeks ago that Garrison Hearst would have no future as the deadline for complying with the 53-man roster in the NFL came to a head. Hearst was being seriously considered for chopping to get under the cap.

The negotiations were intense and immediate as this deadline drew near, the deal had to be finalized by Sunday September 2nd to comply with the deadline. The front office went into a flurry of activity to rework a contract that would be friendly to both sides.

“I think there’s a willingness on both sides to really cooperate with one another and get this done in a quick manner so it’s not hanging over us at the 11th hour before roster cuts (by 1 p.m. Sunday),” Donahue said, adding that Hearst was assured a roster spot if a deal was reached.

“There’s a lot of reasons to keep Garrison on this football team, one of which is he’s got a lot of talent. He can help this young football team with his enthusiasm, his leadership and his ability.”

Hearst’s old contract called for only the veterans minimum salary of $477,000 this season, but he also had incentives in his contract that would have paid him more than $1.2 million if he simply caught five passes or scored one touchdown this season.

This is where the crux of the situation came to a head, these incentives were just to costly to overlook considering the lingering salary cap concerns the 49er’s were dealing with. So they proposed a deal that would make the incentives more performance-based. Hearst at that time was reluctant to go out on the free agent market and test the waters where veteran salaries are not faring well.

The old incentives were due to kick in two weeks into the season and would have applied to next year’s cap, swelling Hearst’s projected cap figure to nearly $2.6 million in 2002. However, Hearst has a chance to make even more money through the new incentives he has agreed to Donahue said.

Hearst signed a new one-year deal that changes his package of incentives for the season. The new arrangement makes it possible for him to earn more than $1.2 million, Donahue said. Hearst has a variety of individual and team incentives in the new deal. After that Hearst is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season.

The intense negotiations and uncertainty as to where he would land really drained Hearst mentally and emotionally. He contemplated the thought that even after the organization had kept him on the roster for two and a half years throughout his rehabilitation, the reality that he might not be a 49er in 2001 was real to him.

“He wasn’t all that talkative last week because he was unsure of what would happen, and maybe we were too,” Mariucci said. “We got it all worked out, and he was his old self again today.”

When you reflect on what exactly Hearst has done for this team, it makes you winder how they would even fathom the idea of releasing such an accomplished veteran, especially with the vacancy left by Charlie Garner, as he departed for the Oakland Raiders along with Jerry Rice.

The entire 49er organization would love to see the old Hearst return to form and quickly as he was a superstar not too long ago. Hearst rushed for 1,019 yards in 1997, his first season with the 49er’s. He then followed up with that with a 1,570-yard campaign in 1998 before he broke his ankle on January 9th, 1999, in a playoff game at Atlanta.

Facing the menace of the Atlanta Falcons all over again, them being the team that sidelined him for over two years has not flinched him a bit. The 49er’s open the regular 2001 season hosting the Atlanta Falcons. “For me, it didn’t matter who we play. The bottom line is I’m getting back on the field.”

As Hearst gets tired and comes off the field this season rookie Kevan Barlow will get the call. He is the 49er’s third-round draft pick. Barlow offers a punishing style in a 6-foot-1, 238-pound frame, he rushed 22 times for a team-high 103 yards in the pre-season despite missing the first two games with a strained left quadriceps.

In one practice this year Barlow was observed driving up the middle in the first string defense lowering his shoulders and slamming straight through defensive back Ronnie Heard. The Heard shot, round the secondary, that story idea on the 49er’s young defense went out the window a fast as Heard flew backward.

Even though it took a little longer than expected, this was Barlow’s first full contact practice because he tweaked his left quadriceps muscle early in camp. However the third-round draft choice out of Pittsburgh arrived with some thunder in his smack.

“Did I? I don’t even remember,” Barlow said with a small grin when asked about the Heard run-over. “We’ll, I don’t know who it was. But somebody was in my way.”

It has been a stressful beginning for the rookie as he has been excited to prove himself in front of his new teammates and coaches alike. He has been hampered because of the injury projecting him into a late start. As the April NFL Draft was going on he received a ringing endorsement from Denver Bronco Head Coach Mike Shanahan as the most talented rookie runner in the league.

“It’s very frustrating not to be out there and show what I can do,” Barlow said. “Especially with Mike Shanahan hyping me up about being the best back in the draft. I had a lot of expectations on me.” “So it was frustrating not to be able to do what I can do on the field.”

Barlow has a different style of running than does the previous 49er style of running backs; he is the opposite of Charlie Garner and Garrison Hearst. This poses a different set of plays and scenarios that the 49er’s will have to look into in revising their running attack.

He looks more like an Earl Campbell or a Tyrone Wheatley, these are the power backs he has been compared to and resembles the most, can we still win with this contrasting style?

“He looks like a 239-pound back that we haven’t had here in a very long time,” Mariucci said. “We’ve had a variety of very, very productive backs here over the years. But I don’t know if I recall one quite that big.”

“They all are somewhat powerful,” offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said, “but Kevan, at 240 pounds, gives you more oomph. Garrison is so nifty, and he’s able to find the holes. Paul’s a good slasher. It will give a different dimension for defenses to see.”

Barlow was most impressive in the pre-season game against the Seattle Seahawks, he blasted past a left tackle for a 1-yard touchdown run with 10 seconds remaining, and he then ran in the two point conversion to close out the 49er’s 28-18 pre-season loss to the Seahawks.

Earlier on the scoring drive, Barlow powered his way up the middle for what was initially ruled as an 8-yard touchdown run with 46 seconds remaining. The Seahawks challenged the play, and officials ruled that Barlow was down at the half-yard line.

Barlow finished the night with a team-high 66 yards on 13 carries, Barlow reeled off the longest run of the night by a 49er’s running back when he cut past two would-be-tacklers for a 14-yard gain with seven and a half minutes remaining. He followed that with a 15-yard run on the next series.

Unfortunately Barlow missed the first two pre-season games because of a left quadriceps strain, which he suffered early in training camp. It is yet to see rather he can duplicate this type of power running in the regular season, where everything is for keeps. I have been impressed so far with his potential, and I feel he will add another dimension to the running attack.

“People are a little faster and a little bigger, but football is football,” Barlow said, noting he emerged unscathed aside from a few nicks and bruises. In comparison on Hearst’s production that night he had nine carries for only 35 yards.

Second-year tailback Paul Smith also saw some action for the first time in this match up as he relieved Hearst at halftime. He had six carries for 29 yards in his first pre-season game. Smith also made a nice 12-yard reception on third-and-11, moving the 49er’s to the Seahawks 33 midway through the third quarter.

“Everything went pretty good. I’ve got a good feel for the game,” said Smith, who’s missed the first two pre-season games with a sprained ankle. “I felt a whole lot more prepared (than last season). It’s a whole lot different.”

Paul Smith is a second-year player from the University of Texas, El Paso, Smith suffered a high-ankle sprain a few days before the 49er’s exhibition game at San Diego and he lost precious practice time in the battle for the starting position.

Paul Smith survived a severe bout with death just five years ago when he was involved in an automobile accident that nearly claimed his life. He swerved his beat-up old Plymouth Horizon into the left lane into an oncoming car. His next thought was even worse.

After blacking out, he awoke to the sounds of ambulances and the sight of the car crushed in against the seat. He forgot that he had dropped off his brother, Mike minutes earlier. He thought his brother was dead.

“Mike, we’re best friends. That’s like another body part to me,” said Paul, who admitted that wasn’t always the case. But after growing up with three fathers and a mother who moved back to Korea when they were in high school, Paul and Mike became inseparable.

When Paul was a senior and Mike a junior in the spring of 1996, all they had was each other. All they had was a small television and a set of bunk beds in a tiny $365-a-month apartment. All they had was Ramen noodles and Spam. Ramen noodles and eggs, Ramen noodles and hot dogs. Enough Ramen noodles to make them both swear they would never go near a package of Ramen noodles again once they made it big in the NFL.

And they had a car, a pathetic excuse for one anyway. Their mom, who sent them money from Korea, wanted to make sure Mike got to school, so she helped Paul buy the run-down old car with bald tires, a car they actually dubbed the “death trap.” And sure enough, one day Paul dropped off Mike at home started driving off in the rain and slammed on the brakes behind a car that turned without a signal, forcing those bald tires to skid on the wet road.

Paul and Mike were barely speaking to each other at the time, but all they had was each other. And that day changed everything.
“It was an opening to my eyes when I saw him lying there in that hospital bed with blood splattered in his hair and streaming down his face,” Mike said. “And I told him, ‘You’re all I’ve got in my life.’ I held his hand, and we were both crying. “That was a fresh start for the both of us.”

Now Paul Smith has high hopes of solidifying his status with the 49er’s and making his legs work for an offense that was rated fourth in the league just last season, his greatest accomplishment will to remain healthy as he has battled numerous bouts with the injury bug.

In the 49er’s last pre-season game against the Denver Bronco’s Garrison Hearst did not participate in the running game, the jobs fell to Kevan Barlow and Paul Smith. This was yet again another opportunity for both tailbacks to shine with the main horse on the sidelines.

Barlow looked explosive; he carried the ball nine times for 37 yards and catching a five-yard touchdown pass on third and goal. His first two carries went for seven yards each in the first quarter, and he plowed through Denver cornerback Eric Davis for the five-yard scoring catch.

“Kevan Barlow is doing more and more for us every time we play,” Coach Steve Mariucci said of the rookie, who missed three weeks of the pre-season and two of the four games with a strained left quadriceps. “The last couple games he’s done some good things for us. He’s got a huge upside.”

Paul Smith was just a little less impressive, gaining 29 yards on six carries and making his biggest mistake when he caught a Denver kickoff and ran directly out of bounds at the nine-yard line. Still, he gained some valuable experience after missing the first two pre-season games with a right ankle sprain.

“We have to decide how we’re going to work those tailbacks. We’ve got an issue there,” Mariucci said, adding that second-year back Jonas Lewis is in the mix. “We’ve said all along that it might be tailback by committee, and it might very well end up that way.”

Second-year running back Jonas Lewis also has a huge upside; he is a 24-year old out of San Diego State who made the 49er roster as an un-drafted free agent primarily because of his special teams skills. Lewis leads the 49er’s in pre-season rushing with 92 yards and 16 carries.

Jonas Lewis remains one of the 49er’s special-teams aces. Coach Steve Mariucci at some point may give Lewis a shot at returning kickoffs, he ran back nine last year for an 18.7-yard average. Should he not be used as a return man, that is something he accepts, he will still be a vital special team’s performer Bruce DeHaven does not want to lose.

“Guys are all over the place,” Lewis said. “I love it. It’s like the battlefield you see in “Braveheart.” Lewis is sure to be a great asset on special teams, which almost puts him on hold as a potential starting tailback.

What about the fullback? What has happened to this position in the 49er system? What is the role of fullback Fred Beasley? These are questions that must be answered this season. The 49er’s are faced with replacing 3.553 all-purpose yards that running back Charlie Garner contributed over the past two seasons.

Beasley was a rookie in 1998 and saw virtually no playing time from scrimmage when Hearst last played with the 49er’s. Through the first week of training camp at the University of the Pacific, Beasley says he sees the Hearst of yesteryear.

Beasley is proud of what Garner accomplished over his last two seasons as a 49er, Beasley can be attributed to a great degree for his success, as he was the man out in front leading the way for Garner to follow and wallow in glory.

Beasley last season carried just 50 times, mostly in short yardage situations, for 147 yards and three touchdowns. I feel that he could do that and even more should he be provided the opportunities. The Beasley I saw last season was impressive and he could more than help us fill the vacancy left by Charlie Garner in conjunction with the other tailbacks.

We have all been wondering as what do we do about the tailback situation, without considering that Fred Beasley is a viable alternative in swaying more production his way.

“The fullback is a key element as far as knowing his role and making the offense work” said running backs coach Tom Rathman, a 49er’s fullback from 1986-1993. “As a fullback on this team, he knows his first responsibility is as a blocker, then he’s a pass-catcher and then he’s a runner.”

Through the 1980’s into the early 90’s, the 49er’s fullback had an integral role in the offense as a pass receiver. From ‘84-86,’ Roger Craig averaged 81.3 receptions a season while playing fullback alongside tailbacks Wendell Tyler and Joe Cribbs.

Rathman averaged 48.2 catches, including a high of 73 receptions in 1989, during his five seasons as a full-time starter. Some would say that the 49er’s have gotten away from the true Bill Walsh offense because they don’t use the fullback in the same fashion anymore. Beasley caught 32 passes in 1999 and 31 last season. But Mariucci said it has nothing to do with a shift in philosophy and more to do with changing defenses in the NFL.

The fullback position in the league has been totally revamped, so much that using them as a receiver has been labeled a forgotten identity, and we do not use them as much as we should or as much as we can.
I am confident in Beasley’s soft hands and his ability to make yardage after the catch, nothing could be more intimidating than seeing a powerful fullback careening down on you if you are a linebacker or a defensive back.

Now the fullback’s main task is to merely serve as a battering ram now and then and as a blocker on blitz coverage. “The fullback used to catch a lot of passes,” Mariucci said, “because in a lot of protections he’d have a free release and didn’t have any responsibilities in blitz pickup. That has gone away with the (zone blitzes). That is why the tailback is catching more passes. I don’t know that we’ll ever have a fullback catch 80 passes again.”

Although Beasley does not go on record as being a complainer, he is still uneasy about his future with the 49er’s. He is playing this season with only a one-year tender of $1.115 million. He was a restricted free agent the off-season and the 49er’s would have been owed a first-round draft choice had another team signed him.

The 49er’s have a counting seven months to sign him to a long-term contract or risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent next February. “This year is a great opportunity for me to prove to the team that it would be best for them to keep me around for awhile,” Beasley said. “This is where I want to play for a long time.”

I say Fred you do not need to prove anything to me, I know you are valuable and probably one of the top three fullbacks in this league today. I feel it would be a shame to jeopardize the role of the fullback position, and to lose a very valuable commodity in Fred Beasley.

To me he is a difference maker, he can score at the goal line, he cab catch the critical catch in clutch situations, when all targets have been exhausted. I have always been a fan of the fullback position and I do not think the 49er’s should sell it down the road believing that it is expendable.

In regards to the starting tailback position I believe it is crucial that Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow work together hand in hand if they are to move the 49er offense forward. The harmony and tranquility will have to be there for each to coexist. That may be the biggest challenge each will face over the course of the season.

“When I got here, it was Terry Kirby, and me” said Hearst, referring to the 1997 season when he had 234 carries and Kirby 125. “I guess it’s different because Kevan is younger. I am used to being where a lot of different backs play. My thing is when you’re on the field, do your job.”

“Kevan will help me and I’ll help Kevan as much as possible. I’m not the biggest back but I try to play physical,” added Hearst (5-11,215). “I try to get into (Barlow’s) head and tell him I see this or that. Kevan is pretty smart as far as instincts. You never know, he may end up teaching me things.”

The real test will come for Garrison, as he is deemed expendable at the end of the season should he not make the comeback everyone is anticipating. Will Garrison be able to survive the rigors of a long regular season, along with the battering and repeated physical stress on his body? How will the ankle hold up under a direct hit? These are all questions that will have to be answered in the regular season.

Garrison Hearst relives a drama back from 1998 that he feels needs to be relived again, this time he wants to help his team reach that plateau we call the playoffs. He will not be able to do it though all by himself, even though we floundered in the playoff game as he was removed from the field over two year ago and lost that match-up against the Atlanta Falcons.

Running by committee is not the best way of executing an offense but it is the best way to find someone should you have a group of tailbacks that are similar in comparison and production. I feel we will have little drop off in talent and overall yardage as long as both Hearst and Barlow remain healthy throughout the season.

A mix of Smith and Lewis along with increased playing time for Fred Beasley would be a pleasant surprise; we still have the weapons to get the job done, and to score points on the board on a consistent basis. It is utilizing all these facets of offensive playmaking that will determine you overall results.

We have always been known as strength in the running game, and we have led the league with yardage time and time again, we must not give up on that benchmark for it is an important one. We want opposing defenses to fear and respect our running backs, I feel we have a talented group of them one or two just itching to break out and do a lot of damage.

This is what we hope for and pray for, we must believe that rewards will come to those that produce results, and so many players are under the gun this year to do just that, they will have to produce and do it often. There will be no measure for defeat, but there will be a learning curve that must be brought around for both ends to connect with one another.

I am proud that San Francisco will entrust its running game to Garrison Hearst, it is a high and measurable honor for him to try and prove that our faith in him has not gone for nothing. I pray that the results will be not only in our favor but in his also, I feel he has a lot to give still, lets hope for many more years.