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Perhaps you've heard: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh inherited a roster with a quarterback problem.

Journeyman David Carr is the only signal-caller under contract, which means the Niners, presently, are without depth or a bona-fide starting NFL quarterback.

That's the bad news.

The good news? That big problem at quarterback is surrounded by big tight ends. And running backs. And linemen.

In fact, San Francisco's industrial-sized offensive personnel was one of the factors that lured Harbaugh to San Francisco from Stanford, where he transformed a Pac-10 pushover into a big-time bully with a power-based, pro-style offense.

"He really liked the roster," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. "He liked how it fit the system he wants to use."

As the Niners ready for this week's NFL Draft, they are clearly ready to do some serious quarterback shopping. The rest of the offense, however, appears to need only moderate tweaking — a third running back here, perhaps a fullback there — to help Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman implement a system similar to what worked so well for them at Stanford.

Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback, but he placed a heavy emphasis on a power running game as head coach at the University of San Diego and then at Stanford.

In his seven seasons there, Harbaugh's teams had five primary running backs — all at least 200 pounds — who accounted for five 1,000-yard seasons. In his four years at Stanford, the Cardinal ran on 58.9 percent of their offensive plays, ranking second behind Oregon (61.0) among Pac-10 teams during his tenure.

Harbaugh, of course, is heralded for his work with quarterbacks. But check out how he works his running backs.

His first tailback, USD's 220-pound Evan Harney, ranked third in Division I-AA in carries per game (27.5) in 2004. His best running back, Stanford's 235-pound Toby Gerhart, led Division I with 26.4 carries per game in 2009.

You get the idea. From San Diego to Stanford, there's been a large supply of smashmouth.

"We always wanted to be a physical team," Harney said. "And with any team, if you can control the line of scrimmage then you have a real good chance of winning the game. But it was emphasized all the way from the offensive line to our fullbacks to me as a running back to really control the line of scrimmage and have that power as far as the run game goes."

Said Stanford wide receiver Ryan Whalen, "The top thing (Harbaugh) stressed was being physical. We were going to out-physical our opponents. That's what he instilled over the years and our staff instilled."

Don't expect Harbaugh's ethos to change at the next level.

Shortly after taking over in San Francisco, he declared that he wanted to "build a bully" and hoped to have a "tough, rough, physical football team." As it happens, Baalke places a premium on size and physicality, a philosophy stemming from his days as a Jets scout under Bill Parcells.

In Baalke's first draft last year, he added five offensive players, four of whom squared with his bigger-is-better belief: 323-pound tackle Anthony Davis, 331-pound guard Mike Iupati, 233-pound running back Anthony Dixon and 264-pound tight end Nate Byham.

With last year's draft haul, the Niners have an offensive line that averages 322 pounds, with all five starters being first- or second-round picks (assuming free-agent center David Baas is re-signed). The backfield features 217-pound Frank Gore and Dixon. And the tight ends include Vernon Davis (6-3, 250), Delanie Walker (6-0, 242) and Byham.

Harbaugh's enthusiasm was evident when he spoke at a fan forum in February.

"We have backs that can run a wide variety of running plays," Harbaugh said. "... They can run it between the tackles. We can toss it to them and get it on the edge. We've got offensive linemen that are athletic, that can pull, that can be physical up front. Really, we can be creative. We can be very creative with the personnel that we have offensively.

"We have tight ends that can set the edge. You talk about Vernon Davis — that is a guy that can control the line of scrimmage and set an edge for you, whether you want to kick out and run up inside or set the edge and run the ball outside. And all that marries into the play-action and the passing game. So it's a group that we can be creative with."

Ah, yes, creativity.

It's the ingredient that separates Harbaugh from his predecessor, Mike Singletary, another believer in Bully Ball.

At Stanford, Harbaugh used a fleet of big-bodied and athletic tight ends, versatile players who helped him employ a variety of formations and personnel packages.

The Cardinal's tight-end trio of Coby Fleener (6-6, 244), Zach Ertz (6-6, 249) and Konrad Reuland (6-6, 257) combined for 65 catches and 833 yards, and caught 13 of quarterback Andrew Luck's 32 touchdown passes this past season.

Now, generally speaking, when 750 pounds of tight end enter a huddle, defenses can brace for a running play. But conventional wisdom was thrown out the door as the Cardinal threw with a slew of big bodies on the field.

"They'll use two and three tight ends at times," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "Typically when you put a lot of big people in you get more of a hard-ball running thing, but he would still spread you out and run the same plays with those big people. He'd spread them out wide and they could be the widest receiver or they could be the two inside receivers on slot.

"They'll motion, move guys into the backfield. He does a lot with those guys. And the combination of his offense, and his offensive scheme, and the power running, and the multiple formations and personnel groups — he kept you off balance and did a fantastic job."

Of course, Harbaugh had an All-American quarterback in Luck to make the system sing at Stanford.

In San Francisco, he presently has Carr, who hasn't started a game since 2007. And he might end up with free agent Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick and a poster boy for what can happen to a franchise that misfires in drafting a quarterback.

Baalke stressed that he's worked with Harbaugh to ensure the 49ers draft the right quarterback this year, terming it "a critical decision."

Even Aliotti, who has spent the majority of his career in the college ranks, recognizes that no NFL coach can build a bully with the biggest piece missing.

"You always need a quarterback in that league," Aliotti said. "... But given equal personnel, or close to equal personnel, I think they'll be very, very good on offense. They will cause problems. If (Harbaugh) can get the right people in his system, I see him having great success."

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at 49ers.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at eric.branch@pressdemocrat.com and follow him at twitter.com/Eric_Branch.

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