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Harbaugh’s Plan For 49ers Backups Goes Against The Grain

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49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at their exhibition game against the Raiders in August. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at their exhibition game against the Raiders in August. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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SANTA CLARA (CBS/AP) — Jim Harbaugh has gone against conventional wisdom since the moment he arrived at San Francisco 49ers headquarters.

One of the most noticeable differences came when the first-year NFL head coach rearranged the locker room to spread out offensive and defensive players and made sure the same positions weren’t together. He also carefully paired training camp roommates.

“It’s about the team, the team, the team at all times,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “As simple as when you come into a cafeteria, you walk in with a guy, you get your food in that same line and then go sit down together. Turn off the cellphone, take the earphones off and get to know a guy.”

Now that same philosophy is carrying deep into the exhibition season.

Going against conventional wisdom again, Harbaugh plans to take many of his starters out early and give backups more meaningful minutes in San Francisco’s preseason game against Houston on Saturday. The third exhibition is traditionally a dress rehearsal for the regular season, with many teams playing starters into the second half.

Not for Harbaugh.

Confident that his first-team units are mostly set, he all but

named Alex Smith the starting quarterback and wants to see what rookie Colin Kaepernick and other backups can do against the best. So he plans to take Smith and others out early—possibly after only one series—with the option of returning them to the game late for another series or two.

“Get them ready before they need to be ready,” Harbaugh said about his reasoning for playing backups big minutes.

With the NFL lockout washing away minicamps and a new coaching staff to incorporate, the 49ers figured to be behind most teams.

Couple that with the fact Smith and other free agents couldn’t practice for the first week of training camp until the new labor agreement took shape, and most figured San Francisco would still be scrambling at this point. And maybe the 49ers still are.

The projected starters, however, feel Harbaugh’s three-hour practices and grueling training regimen were enough to make up for lost time. Most said they are perfectly fine with Harbaugh’s against-the-grain approach to the preseason.

“We know the offense. We get almost like 300 reps in practice,” receiver Josh Morgan said, smiling as he exaggerated just a little.

“We know it. He said he was going to make the practices as hard as possible so the games would be easy,” he said. “He kept his word.”

The plan to push the backups goes well beyond quarterback.

One of the biggest competitions left is for the spot behind

two-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore; Anthony Dixon and rookie Kendall Hunter are promised big minutes against Houston.

Other backups likely to see their minutes ramped up are second-string receivers and players along both lines. Harbaugh also said he hopes third-string quarterback Josh McCown will see action.

“Coach already made it known the backups are going to compete,” said Dixon, who rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns last season behind Gore. “These guys are expecting to go in there and go compete for the No. 2 spot.”

Mixing things up also shows how Harbaugh feels about the progression of his starters.

The 49ers finished 6-10 last season, coach Mike Singletary was fired and Harbaugh was hired away from nearby Stanford to turn things around. Harbaugh said he has been more than pleased with how quickly players picked up his version of the West Coast offense, and he wouldn’t have made the decision to back off his starters in the preseason if they hadn’t.

As Harbaugh hinted earlier this week, the break in the third preseason game might not be a long one. He could always chose to play his starters more in the fourth and final preseason game Sept. 1 at San Diego—when most traditionally rest—depending on how they perform this weekend.

Of course, with Harbaugh, nobody ever really knows for sure.

“I think looking back on a lot of seasons that I’ve been

involved with in pro football, the third preseason game is the important one, but it’s really important too in evaluating your football team,” Harbaugh said. “Who’s going to make the team? Who’s going to be on the practice squad? Along with getting the starters those opportunities. So it’s a bit of a balance there we’re going into with this week.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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