Kendall Hunter injury update: "I'll be ready and sharp"

Elsa

During Week 12 against the New Orleans Saints, Kendall Hunter suffered a season-ending injury, tearing his Achilles tendon. The 49ers are reporting that Hunter auditioned for team doctors this week and participated in organized team activities. We look at his progress to date.

In the wake of Michael Crabtree's injury, we could use good news on the 49ers' injury front. After reporting on Crabtree, many were quick to make the comparison to Terrell Suggs. A few savvy Niners Nation fans used Hunter as another example, knowing he was roughly six months removed from his Achilles injury and was yet to return.

Last Wednesday, Kendall Hunter joined fellow running backs for organized team activities. He performed stretching and individual drills (including change of direction), under the supervision of the team's medical staff.

Just a month ago, it was reported that Hunter had just resumed sprint work. All along, many were optimistic Hunter would return. But, to hear he is able to cut and change direction shows Hunter is making real progress.

Unlike Crabtree, Hunter did not have surgery immediately following his injury. Hunter's tear grade was likely worse than Crabtree's injury. Further, most of us were in the dark a few days following the injury. It was initially reported as a sprained ankle. Several days later we found out he actually tore his Achilles tendon.

The first three or four months are the most significant for Achilles injuries. After surgery, the tendon is very fragile. It has to stay immobilized to repair itself and cannot be stretched. Once it is stretched, the damage cannot be reversed.

At the same time, there is a delicate balance. The tendon also needs the proper weight-bearing, so an athlete will want to start weight-bearing as soon as possible (but without stretching it). The longer a person protects the Achilles, it actually alters the mechanics of the tendon. If even slight compensations are made during the healing process, the tendon won't move as fluidly again.

After athletes pass the initial three- to four-month period, Achilles tendons recover beautifully. It once again becomes a very strong tendon. And, there's no reason Hunter cannot return to his former abilities. At this juncture, his biggest challenge will be to strengthen it. The process is slow. The fact he is performing at OTAs with team doctors present shows he wants the green light. I believe the doctors will be cautious. Yet, at every practice, he will get stronger. And, doctors have given him a little room on that medical leash.

It should be noted Hunter had a previous ankle injury in 2009. Any previous pathology to a hip, knee, ankle or foot can result in improper mechanics. It is likely, at some point, he compensated and placed additional stress on his Achilles. Although he tweaked the Achilles in the New Orleans game, healthy tendons do not just rupture. Hunter has to be cautious he does not put an excessive load on his Achilles. I am sure the doctors are addressing his footwork and mechanics.

Still, the good thing is, the tendon is no longer malleable (as it was immediately after surgery). The hardest part of recovery has passed and now is the time where we see if he is able to do everything he did before.

At some point, Hunter will have to flip the switch mentally. That is, see how the tendon feels and test its capabilities. It's either going to be the same, or it's not. If, for some reason, his prior pathology or the mental aspect is impacting his return, the 49ers may put him on the PUP list. Otherwise, he should be able to return to training camp and begin to really work.

But, the doctors are evaluating his abilities now. The team doctors likely will know before training camp if he will be 100%. While there are many variables, athletes usually heal faster from these injuries. They understand range of motion and know what they're capable of. Athletes know their bodies. As for Hunter, he said, "I'll be ready and sharp."

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