SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — When the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert started his NFL career, he was a running back in name only.
He made the final roster primarily to play special teams. He had never been a starting running back, even in college.
Now Mostert is the lead running back on the NFL’s second-ranked rushing offense.
But his self-image hasn’t changed. He always saw himself as a running back by nature. “You can’t look at it as anything other than your position,” Mostert said.
Mostert is an excellent special teams player, and until recently the 49ers didn’t need him to run the ball. But starting running back Tevin Coleman has averaged just 2.1 yards per carry the past four games, and backup Matt Breida missed three weeks with an ankle injury.
So the 49ers turned to Mostert. And the past three games, he has rushed 35 times for 260 yards, averaged 7.4 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns. He has become one of their most potent playmakers.
“Raheem has earned it these last few weeks,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We need to give him more opportunities. He’s given us no choice. I’m happy for him. He’s been extremely impressive.”
Mostert played college football at Purdue, where he carried the ball only 136 times in four years. He primarily was a kick returner and a sprinter on the track team. In 2014, he won gold medals at the Big Ten Indoor Track and Field Championships with a 6.63-second time in the 60-yard dash and a 20.73-second time in the 200-meter dash. He also ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at his pro day.
However, no team drafted Mostert. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and bounced around the league until he landed with the 49ers in 2016.
“Raheem always has had an impact on special teams,” said Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who will face the 49ers on Sunday. “But now, out on the perimeter when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s a real factor. Sometimes, you need the opportunity, and he definitely has taken advantage of his.”
Mostert might have earned this opportunity last season had he not broken his forearm and missed the final seven games. Before he got injured, he averaged 7.7 yards per carry on 34 attempts.
“It’s probably the speed that sets him apart,” Quinn said of Mostert. “To go against a player like that, you better have speed at linebacker or at safety if you’re going to guard him man to man. Because if you don’t, those are the mismatches that could really cost you.”
Mostert particularly impressed his teammates and coaches with a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle during the second quarter of the 49ers’ 48-46 win over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.
“On an outside run about five plays before that, the middle linebacker was unblocked and he went to go meet Raheem,” Shanahan said. “Raheem is so fast, it surprised him. He thought he had an angle, and Raheem just outran him for 15 yards untouched. Then (a few plays later), the middle linebacker was unblocked again, so he ran a little bit harder, but it was an inside run, so he overran it and Raheem went right into the end zone. Raheem’s speed on the outside play earlier panicked the linebacker a little bit and made him overrun the next one.”
Everyone agrees Mostert is fast. But no one seems to agree about what exactly makes Mostert such an effective running back. Each of his teammates has their own theory. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said Mostert’s “burst” makes him special. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk mentioned something different.
“His uniqueness is his decisiveness,” Juszczyk said. “He makes his decisions very quickly, he doesn’t hesitate and he hits the hole.”
According to Shanahan, it doesn’t matter what makes Mostert special.
“I’m not exactly sure what it is,” Shanahan said, “but it’s time for people to notice.”
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