Harbaugh suggests Gore will be his latest workhorse

The 49ers held a teleconference Tuesday night during which fans could ask coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke questions.

On the line were about 4,000 fans, but arguably the most excited person during the hour-long session won’t be in the stands or in front of a television on game days.

Harbaugh, the football junkie who said the sport was his life when he was growing up, sounded genuinely jacked to be taking questions from Henry in San Jose, Marco in Phoenix and a 9-year-old in Belmont (he asked the youngster if his homework was done).

“This teleforum concept is really blowing me away,” Harbaugh said at one point. “I’m looking at the people that are on this call, I mean, there’s thousands right now. We’ve got to do this more often. We’ve got to do this regularly. This is pretty darn cool.”

If the forums do become a staple, the phrases “perfect competitive opportunity” and “all obstacles can and must be overcome” need to make room for the one Harbaugh repeatedly trotted out Tuesday: “That’s a great question.”

And some of the answers were also illuminating:

• Harbaugh was asked about possibility of limiting Frank Gore’s workload. And that really was a “great question” given the huge number of carries Harbaugh has given established running backs during his seven years as a head coach.

A quick detour … Harbaugh has twice had running backs returning after 1,000-yard seasons. In each case those backs have ranked among the top three in the nation in carries per game, averaging more than 26 a contest (perspective: Kansas City’s Larry Johnson set the NFL record for single-season carries in 2006 with 416, or 26 a contest).

In 2004, his first season at the University of San Diego, Harbaugh inherited 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior Evan Harney, who had rushed for 1,475 yards as a sophomore. In his first season under Harbaugh, Harney finished third in Division I-AA in carries per game (27.5) while rushing for 1,334 yards (Harney didn’t play as a senior due to a head injury).

In 2009, Harbaugh welcomed back 6-1, 235-pound senior Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 1,136 yards as a junior. Gerhart also channeled his inner John Riggins and led the nation in carries per game (26.4) while rushing for 1,871 yards.

So, back to the 5-9, 217-pound Frank Gore, who is currently rehabbing his fractured hip. What about his workload in 2011?

“I really think Frank Gore is one of best running backs in the National Football League and one of the most complete backs,” Harbaugh said. “You talk about his carries — Frank Gore is the kind of guy that doesn’t want to come out. He wants to be in there every single down. But you make a great point and that is: Can he have more production by coming off the field at times?

“I think (Anthony) Dixon did a tremendous job last year. I think his productivity and growth as a football player is going to be even elevated this year so I think he’ll be able to take some of those carries … But it won’t the type of thing where we’re going to have Frank Gore coming off the field too much because he’s one of the best backs in the league in my opinion.”

• Worth noting: Harbaugh didn’t mention Brian Westbrook.

• Also worth noting: Harbaugh did mention Alex Smith. And he went out of his way to do so.

At the end of response to a question about what qualities he looks for in quarterbacks, he told Henry in San Jose that they had something in common: A crush on a certain quarterback.

“I saw on the board here that you typed in that you really like Alex Smith,” Harbaugh said. “And I agree with you. I like him very much, too.”

The 9-year-old, by the way, later asked Harbaugh if Smith was in the hunt to be the starting quarterback.

“Yes,” Harbaugh said. “Alex Smith is definitely in it.”

• So what qualities does Harbaugh look for in a quarterback?

“First of all a competitive guy — a winner,” he said. “Somebody that has great athletic instincts. Somebody that is very accurate throwing the football. A quick-minded guy that can think fast on his feet and make decisions quickly. Has leadership ability. Understands timing and makes really good decisions.”

Worth noting (my pet phrase for February): No mention of arm strength.

• Harbaugh said he wanted to “build a bully” and hoped to have a “tough, rough, physical football team.” But he also made it clear that rugged mentality didn’t mean the ground game had to consist of an endless series of Gore Up The Gut.

“We want to be creative,” Harbaugh said. “We want to be sound fundamentally. We have backs that can run a wide variety of running plays. In terms of, they can it between the tackles. We can toss it to them and get it on the edge. We’ve got offensive linemen that are athletic, that can pull, that can be physical up front. Really, we can be creative. We can be very creative with the personnel that we have offensively.

“We have tight ends that can set the edge. You talk about Vernon Davis — that is a guy that can control the line of scrimmage and set an edge for you whether you want to kick out and run up inside or set the edge and run the ball outside. And all that marries into the play-action and the passing game. So it’s a group that we can be creative with.”

• Harbaugh said coaches naturally have a critical eye when evaluating players. But it sounds as if he’d rather not have those outside the organization criticize the 49ers.

After Baalke fielded a question about improving the pass defense, Harbaugh, perhaps forgetting the gist of the question, added this: “I don’t agree that the defense was poor. These are our guys you’re talking about.”

• Harbaugh said he got chills when he walked past the five Super Bowl trophies in the lobby of the team headquarters in Santa Clara. And he invoked the franchise’s glorious past when asked what successful NFL teams the Niners would attempt to model themselves after.

“We’ve got the greatest model in all of professional football the way the San Francisco 49ers have done it,” he said.

• Harbaugh was asked about the role of middle linebacker Patrick Willis, specifically if the four-time All-Pro would be given more freedom to freelance and blitz. Harbaugh noted that Willis’ primary job was to anchor the middle, but suggested the Niners might be more creative in utilizing him.

“He’s got the potential to be a great blitzer and (we can’t) be predictable in how we bring him,” Harbaugh said. “So I think that will be up to the creativity of our coaching staff and Patrick and using his instincts. As he continually grows as football player, I think you’ll see more and more of that.”

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