Always finding their way to run
Niner Report|October 2021
49ers system accomplished at developing homegrown talent
Craig Massei

The 49ers returned from their 10-day Eastern road trip to begin the 2021 season with a 20 record and facing an alarming question they never expected to be answering so early in the year.

Who is going to play running back?

That already was an issue before San Francisco could even get out of the middle of September as the 49ers lost explosive lead back Raheem Mostert to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 at Detroit, then saw each of their top three remaining backs go down to injury in a five-minute span the next week during a slugfest victory at Philadelphia.

The only healthy running back San Francisco had at the end of that game was fringe veteran Trenton Cannon, who has carried the football 12 times over the last three seasons for three different teams and was picked up off the free-agent scrap heap only after the 49ers lost Mostert.

A dire situation for the San Francisco backfield? Sure.

But fear not. The 49ers know how to find running backs and they know how to develop them. And they never stop looking for ways to do it and places to find them. Who knows? Maybe they can even turn Cannon into something special under the tutelage of San Francisco coaches once they fit him into Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme.

The 49ers have done it before with just about everybody else they’ve inserted since Shanahan and his staff arrived to run the operation in 2017. Just as Shanahan has done it before with just about every running back he’s inserted into his system since he first began running an NFL offense as a coordinator with the Houston Texans in 2008.

“There are always diamonds in the rough you can look for,” Shanahan said. “I usually like our percentages with running backs, whether it is a draft pick or whether it is an undrafted guy.”

Whenever they return healthy — and even when they’re not — the 49ers are moving forward through the early stages of this season with sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell, undrafted second-year veteran JaMycal Hasty and third-round pick Trey Sermon spearheading their running back rotation. Mostert also went undrafted before the 49ers molded him into one of the NFL’s most electrifying big-play running backs.

Mostert’s gone on injured reserve now, which will accelerate the learning curve for the youngsters he leaves behind. But they’ve already learned plenty in a short time, as indicated by Mitchell stepping into the lead role when Mostert was lost for the year after his second carry of the season.

Mitchell, who got a late start after missing San Francisco’s first two preseason games to injury, took over for Mostert and burst over the right side for a tackle-breaking 38-yard touchdown run on just his third career carry to put San Francisco ahead to stay. Mitchell never slowed down until he had become the first rookie in franchise history to record a 100-yard rushing game in his NFL debut, finishing with 104 yards on 19 carries.

Mitchell, who appeared to be on the roster bubble for a while earlier this summer — and was listed fourth at running back on the team’s first official depth chart released Sept. 7 — wasn’t informed he’d be the top backup behind Mostert until a few days before the opener. But he was ready when called upon and knew just what to do when that actually happened.

All San Francisco running backs appear to be ready when that happens.

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