If it wasn't evident before the preseason finale against the Chargers, it was after. Kendall Hunter has all but won the primary backup running back battle. Jim Harbaugh hasn't made it official, but he did say this: "He's definitely playing well enough to be the No. 2 back." He also described Hunter as being "as hard as hen's teeth" when it came to pass protection.
That was the biggest question surrounding Hunter before the draft. At 5'7 and 199 pounds, could he hold up in pass protection against blitzing linebackers? For the most part, the answer has been yes. A few years ago, the 49ers had another impressive back in Kory Sheets, but the team was not comfortable with him in pass protection and he did not make the team.
What really sets Hunter apart from Dixon, however, is his running ability. Yes, it is preseason. Yes, the 49ers have had several backs no longer with the team who also put up great numbers. But I'm more interested in looking at how Hunter runs instead of focusing on his stats (which are great).
The first thing I noticed is that he decisively hits the hole. It has been well documented that Anthony Dixon tends to take unnecessary steps in the backfield. This is not the case with Hunter. Once Hunter gets going, he can make people miss as well. His ability to change direction without losing his speed has been impressive.
To me, though, the most impressive attribute I have seen from Hunter is his balance. At 5'7, he has one of the lowest centers of gravity in the league, and he uses it to his advantage. The best example of this came on his 51-yard kick return on Thursday. He was able to spin through a tackle and keep his balance to gain at least five extra yards.
Another thing to like about Hunter is his ability to finish runs. He is not afraid to put his shoulder into a defender and always keeps his legs moving. There haven't been too many plays where he isn't falling forward when he is tackled. He really does play a lot bigger than he is.
Balance is another area where Hunter has Dixon beat. Last season, there were too many times where Dixon went to cut and just fell in the backfield. He's also not as good at maintaining his balance when he gets hit.
That's not to say that Dixon doesn't have his own strengths. He has done a great job in short yardage situations this preseason and that role should carry over to the regular season.
Luckily, the 49ers won't have to choose between the two backs. Both guys will be on the team, and both should get carries during the regular season. The 49ers really do have a nice trio of backs on their roster. Frank Gore can do it all, we all know that. Hunter is a nice change of pace back, but can also run up the middle, and Anthony Dixon is effective in short yardage situations.