SUWANEE, Ga. -- Garrison Hearst labored as a pretty good running back on pretty bad teams his first four pro seasons, then made a mark with the San Francisco 49ers last year.
Two games into this season, he's hitting his stride as one of the NFL's premier runners on a 49ers club that appears talented enough to make a Super Bowl run.
The former Georgia star from Lincolnton has rushed for 325 yards, the best two-game start by any NFL running back in the '90s. And the 49ers, who host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday (4:15 p.m., Fox-54), have put up 81 points with their first back-to-back 500-yard offensive performances since 1961.
"It's been a while since I've had a conversation about me having a great year," Hearst said by phone Wednesday. "It feels good, but we'll have to wait and see. I don't want to make any predictions."
After recovering from a major knee injury his rookie year and enjoying occasional success with the woeful Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, Hearst signed with the 49ers as a free agent last year.
Billed as the fix to the 49ers' shaky running game, Hearst churned for 1,017 yards. The season was mildly disappointing, though, because he missed the final three regular-season games and playoff contest against Minnesota with a broken clavicle. In a 23-10 loss to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game, he managed only 12 yards on eight carries.
This year, Hearst seems better adapted for the 49ers' finesse-style West Coast offense.
"He's definitely more comfortable," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "Last year he shared the load to a certain extent with Terry Kirby. Now, he feels like he's the man in the backfield and his responsibility is to get us yards and score points for us.
"Provided he stays healthy, I think Garrison Hearst can be one of the better backs in the league."
Already in the bank this year is the "greatest run in NFL history," an honor bestowed by NFL Films legend Steve Sabol after Hearst went 96 yards for a touchdown against the New York Jets in overtime Sept. 7.
Hearst took a handoff from his 4-yard line on a quick trap up the middle, broke an attempted tackle by Pro Bowl cornerback Aaron Glenn, flattened safety Kevin Williams with a stiff-arm, then broke into the open.
"It sure was a heck of a run, I've got to admit that," Mariucci said. "I'm not the expert; Steve's seen them all. But I think part of his feeling was it was so exciting because of when it occurred. It wasn't a run in the second quarter that tied the game. It was a run that ended the game. It's over. Everybody's jumping around, including me."
Hearst ran for 187 yards on 20 carries against the Jets, then 138 yards on 22 attempts in a 45-10 Monday night trouncing of the Washington Redskins Sept. 14.
Despite playing in one less game than the other leading backs, Hearst ranks second in the league in rushing yards behind on Denver's Terrell Davis, a former Georgia teammate. Davis has 370 yards and five touchdowns, two more than Hearst.
"Anytime you see two Bulldogs anywhere in the NFL doing well, you have to pull for them," Hearst said. "Terrell has been doing well every year lately. It's good see guys you know and you played with having fun on the field."
One person Hearst wouldn't mind seeing this weekend is his grandmother, Julie Leverett. She made the trip from Lincolnton to San Francisco for the Jets game and whipped up a Southern feast, including fried chicken, cornbread and sweet potato pie.
"I don't know if she's coming out this weekend," Hearst said laughing. "Some of the family will be out. My dad and mom, maybe my uncle. I'll know later in the week."