Barlow trade makes Gore Niners' top running back

Elevated to the top of the San Francisco 49ers' depth chart by the Sunday trade which shipped incumbent starter Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick, second-year tailback Frank Gore acknowledged he was "shocked" by the sudden turn of events.

For a guy who felt he should be challenging for the No. 1 job from the time he set foot in the team's facility last spring, however, it shouldn't take long for the surprise to wear off.

Some observers may feel the 49ers are rolling the dice a bit by entrusting their ground game to a back who has never carried the ball more than 172 times in a college or professional season, and by dealing off the lone tailback on the roster who had ever rushed for more than 700 yards in a season. Gore, not surprisingly, isn't one of them.

"I've thought from the first day here that I was capable [of being the starter]," Gore, 23, said. "I definitely feel like I'm ready."

San Francisco officials apparently agree. In the camp competition for the starting job, Gore, a second-round pick in 2005, had edged ahead of Barlow, a five-year veteran. Plus, the 49ers' staff seems to feel its depth at tailback is far better than it was a year ago.

That remains to be seen.

There are three other tailbacks -- two-year veteran Maurice Hicks, seven-year pro Terry Jackson, and rookie Michael Robinson -- on the current roster. Hicks has appeared in 23 games, with five starts, and rushed for 670 yards and five touchdowns on 670 carries, but has never logged more than 96 carries in a campaign. Jackson is a longtime special teams standout who has just 70 career rushes. Robinson, a fourth-round pick, was the starting quarterback at Penn State, and is trying to make the transition to tailback.

Still, coach Mike Nolan feels there is sufficient talent on hand. "Had we not been in that situation," Nolan said, "we wouldn't have [made the trade]."

There is no questioning Gore's talent level. But he's got a thick medical dossier, one that includes surgeries on both knees in college, and he hasn't logged many carries.

As a freshman at Miami in 2001, Gore posted an impressive 9.1 yards per carry, and scored five touchdowns on just 62 carries, playing as the backup to star Clinton Portis. But projected as the Hurricanes' starter in 2002, ahead of Willis McGahee, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and missed the season. In 2003, he tore the ACL in his left knee in an early October game, after 89 carries for 468 yards and four scores. He came back in 2004 to carry 172 times for 865 yards and eight touchdowns as the starter.

Gore also underwent surgery on both shoulders this spring.

But he has remained healthy through camp, demonstrated no adverse effects from the shoulder problems, and seems certain the injuries are behind him and that a big season as the starter lies ahead. San Francisco officials feel that Gore will be even better now that he understands the starting job belongs to him, and that he doesn't have to fret about a time-sharing role.

"If they want to give it to me 20 times a game, I'm prepared for that role," said Gore, who has 19 carries for 91 yards and one touchdown in two preseason games. "It's the opportunity I wanted."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.