SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers received a gut punch on Saturday morning with the news running back Kendall Hunter is likely out for the season with a torn right ACL.
Hunter has been a solid, trusted backup for the 49ers since his arrival in 2011 as a fourth-round draft pick.
Rookie Carlos Hyde was a second-round draft pick. He is the obvious heir apparent to Frank Gore. But it was not a given that he was going to be able to beat out Hunter for the No. 2 job.
Hyde will have to prove his acumen in blitz pickup in order for the coaching staff to trust him in a significant role.
This is the second devastating injury for Hunter in his career. This one comes at an especially horrible time for him because he is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season.
When Hunter sustained a partially torn left Achilles tendon in November 2012, the 49ers turned to LaMichael James as Gore’s backup. And James will be seeking to re-establish himself in that role to open this season.
It was the only time in his two NFL seasons that James had a defined role in the offense. In seven games in the regular season and playoffs, James rushed for 190 yards (5.0-yard average) on 38 rushing attempts.
James’ spot on the roster appears virtually assured now. He appears to be the team’s most reliable return man. And, now, he moves up a spot on the team’s depth chart at running back.
Marcus Lattimore is still an unknown for the 49ers. He spent his rookie season rehabbing from the grisly knee injury he sustained his final year at South Carolina. He’s still on the non-football injury list as he rehabs his knee and hamstring. But he looks close to being activated.
It seems unlikely the 49ers will suit up four running backs for regular-season games when neither Hyde nor Lattimore can be expected to make contributions on special teams. Despite Hunter’s injury, it does not entice the 49ers to speed up Lattimore’s timetable because they still might not need him this season.