ST. LOUIS — Jewel Hampton is used to winning playoff games, and may get a chance to chase the biggest one of them all early next year with the San Francisco 49ers.
Hampton, the Missouri Valley Football Conference newcomer of the year in his only year at SIU in 2011, was promoted from the non-football related injury list to the 53-man roster late last month.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pound rookie is listed as the 49ers’ third-string running back for this week’s game at New England (10-3) on Sunday night, behind Frank Gore and rookie LaMichael James. He is yet to get his first NFL carry, but said he has prepared the same way each week as when he was a non-active player.
“I’ve just been going to work. Each week, trying to get on the field each week, just be coachable,” Hampton said Dec. 2 after San Francisco’s game at St. Louis. “Whatever they need me to do, that’s what I’m doing.”
San Francisco (9-3-1) leads the NFC West Division with three games left in the regular season. A win at New England would clinch a playoff spot, according to Sports Illustrated’s website, as would losses by Minnesota, Dallas, Washington and Seattle. A win and a loss by Seattle (8-5) at Buffalo (5-8) would give the 49ers a playoff berth and the NFC West title.
Hampton didn’t play for Iowa in 2009 because of injury, but was along for three bowl victories by the Hawkeyes between 2008 and 2010. SIU failed to reach the playoffs in 2011 despite Hampton’s 17 rushing touchdowns, finishing 4-7, which has made this year a bit easier to handle.
“It’s my first year in the league, so I really don’t know what it’s like to be on a winning, or a losing team, but I’m glad I’m on a very good team right now,” Hampton said. “We’ve actually got a shot at the playoffs. We’re going to take it one game at a time, just try to get better.
“We’ve gotta get better.”
Hampton moved up from fourth to third on the depth chart after another former Saluki, Brandon Jacobs, was suspended for the remainder of the regular season by the 49ers this week.
Jacobs, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants who signed with San Francisco in the offseason as a free agent, has complained about his playing time. He only has five carries for seven yards all season playing behind Gore.
Gore, the league’s ninth-leading rusher at 79.6 yards per game, went over the 1,000-yard mark last week against Miami and now has six career 1,000-yard seasons. It is the most of anyone in 49ers history. With a 1-yard touchdown run last week, Gore tied former Hall of Fame running backs Joe Perry and Roger Craig for the most rushing touchdowns in franchise history (50).
James made his NFL debut last week against the Dolphins, rushing for 30 yards on eight carries, catching one pass for 15 yards and returning three kickoffs for 26 yards.
Hampton, 22, will turn 23 on Dec. 23. He left SIU and entered the NFL draft earlier this year, but was not taken. Hampton signed with San Francisco as a free agent but was placed on the non-football-related injury list with a bone bruise and bone spurs in his left ankle.
The 49ers had until Nov. 27 to activate him or lose his rights, and decided to put him on the active roster after they lost running back Kendall Hunter to an Achilles tear and put him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.
Hampton said he had been practicing with the team almost all of November before moving up to the 53-man roster, and is now like every other backup running back in the NFL, waiting for his turn.
“When they need me to step up, I’ll be there,” he said. “I’m just being patient, and playing the game.”
On Twitter: @Todd_Hefferman