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SANTA CLARA — The day began with a feel-good story on the 49ers' official web site that looked ahead to this Sunday's game at Indianapolis. The article talked about the opportunity to put on pads and hit an opponent, and one of its focal points was a halfback who had added "17 pounds of muscle" this offseason.

"Getting in the game is what we live for, so I'm ready for it," Glen Coffee said, according to the 49ers. "It's what we practice for."

Hours later, it was unclear what Coffee lives, or practices, for. The second-year running back has left the team, apparently for good.

"This has been a tough decision for me to make, but at this time in my life I feel it is best for me that I move on from football," Coffee said in a statement distributed immediately after Friday morning's practice. "I appreciate what the 49ers, my teammates and coaches have done for me, and I wish them a blessed season and all the best in the future."

The news clearly stunned the 49ers, who had noted the runner's hard work in preparation for training camp.

"Glen's a good friend of mine," fellow running Michael Robinson said. "I feel bad, like I'm losing a brother. We had no indication."

Coffee's first public absence was at Thursday afternoon's practice. Robinson called him that night and caught wind of Coffee's uncertainty, but they didn't speak long. Friday morning, Coffee met with Mike Singletary and delivered the news. The head coach offered no explanation as to why Coffee, 23, walked away from the team. He did say that the back is healthy, and that he was having "a fine camp."

"My initial reaction was: &‘Glen, are you sure about this?'" Singletary noted. "He said, &‘Yes, sir, I've given it a lot of thought.' I said, &‘OK, well, if that's where you are, then I respect that. I appreciate your honesty.'"

Singletary hinted that his scouting department would be on the lookout for an available running back. The 49ers can gain a roster spot by placing Coffee on the reserve/retired list, which would prevent him from playing for another team. If Coffee then applied to the team for reinstatement, his request would have to be approved by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

And then there is the matter of filling Coffee's role in the offense. He has been competing with rookie Anthony Dixon to be Frank Gore's primary backup this year. And though Dixon is bigger and possibly faster, Coffee's better grasp of technique and fundamentals may have made him the frontrunner.

Dixon will now get a look at No. 2, with Robinson available should the rookie falter. Singletary said Dixon will have to improve in every area of play.

"From just being able to hit the hole, knowing when to dance a little bit, knowing when to hit it full speed, knowing when to make a cut, knowing exactly where that guard is going to be and knowing how much time he has to hit a hole," Singletary explained. "The protections — that's a whole other worry for a young guy. You really begin to look at the quarterback situation and think, &‘Hey, you know what? Right now, you really have to be careful about his protections with Anthony Dixon and what he doesn't know.'"

Dixon realizes he has a long way to go. On the field Friday morning, he got his feet tangled with those of backup quarterback David Carr and wound up on his backside as Carr threw the ball away. Still, Dixon's strength and nimble feet, not to mention his production at Mississippi State, make him an interesting prospect.

"Coach (Jimmy Raye's) always talking about when you get called, pick up the phone," Dixon said. "That's how he put it. So I knew it was my time. I knew they was gonna call on me. So I just get prepared to pick up the phone, you know?"

Coffee, a third-round draft choice out of Alabama in 2009, had a strong exhibition season as a rookie but averaged just 2.7 yards on 83 carries during the regular season. He did not speak publicly Friday except for the printed statement, and his agent, Todd Crannell, did not reply to phone calls or e-mails.

Coffee's surprising move comes just a day after the 49ers received a roster exemption for defensive end Kentwan Balmer, another player who left the team with little explanation. Two defections in a week seem troubling, but Singletary took a positive approach.

"This has been one of the best week's we've had," he said. "The reason why is because we had adversity. When you have to deal with adversity, it allows you to focus." A couple more weeks like this one, and the 49ers will be very focused indeed.

<b>EXTRA POINTS</b>

Singletary offered no information on who will or will not play against the Colts, or how long his starters are likely to play. The 49ers are scheduled to leave for Indianapolis at 9:15 this morning.

The coach seemed to leave the door open for Balmer returning to the team, while questioning the player's motivation: "If Balmer wanted to be back, he'd be back."

C Eric Heitmann (broken fibula), LB Ahmad Brooks (lacerated kidney), WR Michael Crabtree (neck), LB Travis LaBoy (concussion), WR Brandon Jones (hamstring) and CB Phillip Adams (hamstring) all sat out practice Friday. FB Brit Miller returned from an ankle injury.

Injured linebacker Scott McKillop (torn ACL and patellar tendon) cleared waivers and reverted to the 49ers' injured reserve.

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at blog.pressdemocrat.com/49ers. You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com