For two years, Kendall Hunter was my late-round sleeper in fantasy drafts. Sure, a healthy dose of biased expectations played a part, but I loved what I saw from the kid right out of the gate in 2011. Hunter became a great change of pace back and complement to Frank Gore in his rookie season. Despite his diminutive frame, Hunter had the low center of gravity and strength to run between the tackles but also possessed some solid speed to get to the edge, one of the few things that Gore lacks. He also proved to be a viable receiving threat out of the backfield, hauling in 16 receptions for 195 yards.
When 2012 rolled around, it was reasonable to expect Hunter's role to expand. After all, Frank Gore was a year older, the Niners would seemingly want to keep him fresh for the playoffs, and Hunter proved to be a very capable alternate. But the season wore on and Hunter's playing time remained the same until he was lost for the year with an Achilles tear against the Saints in Week 12.
After beginning the 2013 preseason on the Physically Unable to Play (PUP) list, Hunter was activated on August 10th. Seemingly fully recovered from injury, he was ready to pick up where he left off and hopefully spring a breakout year. Instead, his workload was even further diminished. Despite being healthy for the entire season, Hunter only received six more attempts than he did in a 2012 season that was cut almost five games short. Much of his action was relegated to garbage time in blowout wins. His 358 yards, two receptions, and 13 receiving yards were all career lows.
What is the coaching staff's reluctance to get the fourth-year back out of Oklahoma State more involved? If it's something Hunter lacks in terms of skills, it's not conspicuously apparent. He only has two career fumbles, he seems to be an adequate blocker, and he's broken off several impressive long runs during his time in San Francisco. Furthermore, the aforementioned pass-catching ability would seem to be a huge benefit for a 49ers team that could desperately use some check-down options for Colin Kaepernick. If Hunter wasn't fully healed from injury, that wasn't too apparent either. He rattled off a nice-29 yard touchdown in a late September win over the Rams and busted a crucial 45-yard run in the 49ers' thrilling victory over the Falcons in Candlestick's finale.
Hunter allows the 49ers to call plays they can't with Frank Gore like halfback tosses and sweeps. His presence gives opposing defenses something different to account for. He also stands a better chance to finish those runs in the end zone thanks to having a better set of wheels than the venerable but plodding Gore. This isn't to take anything away from Gore; he's clearly still the 49ers best running back and, despite age, is one of the top ten in the league. But Hunter has earned the right to see more playing time and it would be in the best interest of the team, considering their noticeable lack of offensive explosion and consistency this past year.
Hunter's lack of involvement remains a frustrating mystery but, if nothing else, it signifies one of the coaching staff's biggest flaws-a strong hesitation to incorporate more role players into their gameplan. Their ability to maximize young talent and cater to individual player strengths was a hallmark of the 2011 season, with immediate contributions from players like Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller, and Chris Culliver. That has all but evaporated in the past two seasons. The 2012 draft class (already one of the franchise's worst) has only yielded limited contribution from LaMichael James. If Hunter didn't get hurt in 2012, the 49ers might not have seen a single snap from their rookie class that year.
The 2013 class still shows great promise moving into this season, but the only significant rookie performance was that of first-round selection Eric Reid. The 49ers need not look any further than a couple states North, where Pete Carroll and his staff have excelled in developing young talent and utilizing its strengths. Players like Jermaine Kearse, an undrafted wideout in 2012, were key to the team's first championship in franchise history.
The 49ers staff clearly has the capacity to do the same, as evidenced by that 2011 season. But they've shown resistance and a propensity for leaning heavily on their vets ever since. What will 2014 bring for Kendall Hunter? It's a contract year for the four-year veteran and he'll be competing for playing time in a backfield that will become even more crowded with a healthy Marcus Lattimore figuring into the mix. With that said, the prognosis, unfortunately, isn't looking very different than it has in the past. So don't be surprised if you see Hunter in another uniform and possibly doing big things, come 2015.