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After Jerick McKinnon ACL tear, San Francisco 49ers running backs ready to take the load

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Jerick McKinnon participates in a drill on the first day of San Francisco 49ers training camp, on July 27, 2018. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner

SANTA CLARA — San Francisco announced Monday that starting running back Jerick “Jet” McKinnon was placed on injury reserve after receiving confirmation of a torn ACL in his right knee. With McKinnon in good spirits and primed for surgery, though, the rest of the 49ers running back corps say they’re ready to pick up the slack in his absence.

“It was very hard [to see him go down]. I almost teared up when I seen it happen,” said 49ers running back Matt Breida. “But Jet’s going to help me a lot, Alfred [Morris], who’s been in this offense is going to help me a lot. Me, Alf and Raheem [Mostert]; we’re all going to get the job done.”

McKinnon, who the 49ers signed to a four-year, $30 million contract in March, was slated to be San Francisco’s feature back during the 2018 season. Returning to practice Sunday afternoon from an injured calf, however, the former Vikings ball carrier went down with a non-contact knee injury on the last play of the day.

“It was nothing special,” said Morris, who was on the sidelines when McKinnon suffered the injury. “He planted, no contact and he pulls up and falls on the ground and you go, ‘Hold on, what just happened?’” 

According to McKinnon, he knew his season was in jeopardy as soon as it happened. An MRI performed later that day confirmed his worst fears: A ruptured ACL that would keep him out for the entirety of the 2018 season. 

But rather than letting his emotions get the better of him, McKinnon says he’s optimistic about his recovery and still ready to contribute however he can, even if it’s from the sidelines.

“For me, it’s just about keeping the positive mindset and making sure I still bring energy to this locker room and to the guys around me,” he said. “I’m here rooting these guys on, making sure they stay straight and make sure we all get out team goals that we’ve been talking about since I got here.” 

With McKinnon out, the task of compensating for his absence will primarily fall on the shoulders Morris and Breida, who each offer a different set of skills.

Morris brings a hard-nosed, downhill style of running as the seasoned veteran of the pair. Formerly a member of the Washington Redskins, Morris is familiar with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s style of play and offensive scheme, making him the ideal fit.

In his first appearance in a 49ers uniform during the preseason against Indianapolis, Morris turned heads by rushing for 84 yards on 17 carries. He was the go-to-guy in third-and-short situations, and he was able to move the chains for first downs three times in the first half when faced with two yards or fewer to go.

“Right now, I’m still in a stage of still learning and solidifying and just getting that confidence,” said Morris. “ I think I’m definitely at a place where I can carry a heavy load.” 

In Morris’s 69 career starts, he’s accumulated 5,503 yards and 32 touchdowns. That includes 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns during his rookie campaign in 2012, which happened to be his first of two seasons playing for Shanahan. 

Morris also spoke of, Brieda, who is the second component of this compensation equation.

“[Breida] is very smart and he’s sharp,” said Morris. “He reminds me of Evan Royster when we were in Washington. He knew the playbook like that. I mean, he’s a heck of a player, otherwise we wouldn’t have him here.”

While Breida, like Morris, can run north-south, more of his skills come out in the open field, when bouncing runs to the edge — similar to McKinnon.

Starting a total of zero games as a rookie in 2017, Breida had 465 yards on 105 carries (4.4 average) and scored two touchdowns. Breida can also do something Morris isn’t necessarily equipped to: Catch the ball out of the backfield, another trait he shares with McKinnon. 

“That’s what I plan on doing this year is catching a lot of balls,” said Breida. “I’ve been working on that this offseason. I don’t feel any pressure with that. I feel comfortable catching the ball.”  

Breida suffered a separated shoulder in the 49ers preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys but made his return to practice on Sunday. According to Breida, the shoulder is feeling good and he’s ready to go for Week 1 versus Minnesota.

With both Morris and Breida primed to pick up the slack left by his absence, McKinnon says he feels confident in the pair to do what’s needed.

Moving forward, McKinnon will work with his agent and the 49ers training staff to set up a surgery date and schedule for his impending rehab on the injured knee. 

“It is what it is. It’s just going to make me that much better next year,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason I feel like. I just feel like this is part of the bigger plan. I’m ready for the process.”

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