SANTA CLARA (CBS / AP) — Frank Gore may stand alone among all San Francisco 49ers running backs but he’s not done working.
The three-time Pro Bowler is still one of the first players to arrive each day at team headquarters, beginning his training camp ritual with an early morning conditioning session long before the 49ers take to the practice field.
Gore’s work ethic has helped make him the franchise’s all-time leading career rusher to go along with several other team records. But the way Gore sees it, he has more work to do this summer to hold off a new group of competitors looking to cut into his playing time.
The 49ers added veteran Brandon Jacobs and second-round draft pick LaMichael James during the offseason to a crowded backfield that also features Gore’s slippery understudy Kendall Hunter. Gore said it’s the most competitive group he’s ever been a part of since joining the Niners, providing him new motivation to stay in front of the pack.
Gore wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m cool with it,” Gore said Monday. “I’m a competitor. It’s fun to compete. That will only make our team better. I’m just happy to be back out there with the team playing football and putting the pads on.”
Gore put on the pads this summer perched on a pedestal. While rushing for 1,211 yards last season—the fifth 1,000-yard season of his career—Gore passed Hall of Famer Joe Perry as the leading rusher in 49ers history. Gore enters this season with 7,625 career yards rushing.
Gore’s 2011 season was one of his best. He assembled a team-record string of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games to spark the 49ers to a surprising 9-1 start, stretching his team-record career total of 100-yard games to 29.
He later averaged 5.6 yards a carry while rushing for 163 yards and catching 13 passes in two games during San Francisco’s run to the NFC championship game. It was Gore’s first trip to the playoffs.
But there was a perception that Gore wasn’t as effective after midseason, when he was hampered by minor injuries. After being limited to a career-low zero yards on six carries in a November game against the New York Giants, Gore averaged only 53.6 yards rushing over San Francisco’s final eight games.
Even though Hunter proved to be a fine complement to Gore as a rookie last season with 473 yards rushing—the most by Gore’s backup since he became the team’s regular starter in 2006 — the 49ers opted not to stand pat at the position.
The team added power by signing the 264-pound Jacobs, who started 48 games and rushed for 4,849 yards in seven seasons with the Giants. The Niners then used their second draft pick on the speedy James, who rushed for 5,082 yards in three seasons at Oregon.
The 49ers would like to find a way to use them all, which could mean a diminished workload for Gore this year to keep him fresh. Gore’s 282 carries last season were the second most of his career and he has averaged 300 touches a year over the past six seasons.
“That’s something that we’ll address and something that will unfold as we go,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “You’re always looking to maximize each player’s ability relative to the group and do whatever’s best for the team. But Frank Gore is a great football player and he’s a team football player. We count on him in so many ways and we’re thrilled that he’s a 49er.”
Gore never has been one to shy away from competition. As one of the top running backs in the nation as a high school senior, Gore had his choice of scholarship offers from top college programs. He chose his hometown University of Miami, where three running backs who later would start in the NFL already were ahead of him on the depth chart.
Now Gore’s at the top of that chart with the 49ers and ready to face the new challenges the team has provided him.
“I’ve seen laser-like focus from Frank,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Frank’s the same demanding, intense, enthusiastic guy on the field. He wants to play, wants to work, wants to continually get better.”
Gore has looked sharp in the early days of camp, and the team gave an indication during its first padded practice that he still is foremost in the offensive plans. The first play of team drills was an inside handoff to Gore, a signature play he has run hundreds of times as a 49er.
Gore broke through the line of scrimmage, bounced off a defender, then finished the run sprinting down the field after the play was whistled dead.
He hardly looked like a guy who has to be concerned about his role.
“As long as you train and work hard, you should be fine,” Gore said.
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