SANTA CLARA Rookie running back D.J. Harper is wearing a badge of honor across the bridge of his nose a gash he sustained early in 49ers training camp when he tangled with a linebacker in a pass-blocking drill.
The encounter left Harper with a cut, but he won his battles that day, including against veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman, whom he knocked to the ground. Afterward in the running backs meeting room, Harper was singled out by position coach Tom Rathman, a rarity for any rookie tailback much less an undrafted one like Harper.
"I've got to live up to it now," Harper said Wednesday. "I can't go out there and have one or two good days. I have to live up to it. So every single day I come out here, I want to continually get better and keep on trying to win those battles."
Picking up blitzing linebackers doesn't get a running back noticed by fans. But failing to do so can keep a young player on the sideline. Harper, who ran for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns last year at Boise State, said it's something that was drilled into him in college, and it may lead to a few carries in today's preseason opener against Denver.
Starting running back Frank Gore figures to make only cameo appearances this summer if at all and Kendall Hunter, the NFL's exhibition-season rushing champion in 2011, still hasn't been cleared for practice after injuring his Achilles' tendon in November.
That means the carries will be split among LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon, second-year player Jewel Hampton and Harper.
A young 49ers running back has been the NFL's preseason champion in rushing yards four times since 2007.
At 5-foot-9 and 211 pounds, Harper is similar in size and shape to Gore, and he shares one of Gore's experiences in that he suffered ACL tears in back-to-back seasons in college. Harper tore his left ACL in 2009 and 2010. Both injuries occurred in the third game of consecutive seasons.
Harper said he felt 100 percent recovered a year ago, and the injuries have not been an issue this offseason.
In fact, his only nick so far is the one across his nose.
"That's what sticking my nose in there and banging it will do," he said. "But that's what you've got to do. You've got to be tough."
Who's No. 2? In June, coach Jim Harbaugh said Colt McCoy was comfortably in the role of No. 2 quarterback. Wednesday, he painted a fuzzier picture, saying Scott Tolzien was in the mix, too.
"It's very even," Harbaugh said of the backup spots. "And very much looking forward to the (exhibition) games and future practices to determine. We're not clear cut at that position."
He was then asked if rookie quarterback B.J. Daniels, a seventh-round pick, was part of that mix.
"Yes, yes," Harbaugh said.