Carlos Hyde has quietly become one of the NFL's premier running backs

Carlos Hyde ended the best season of his young NFL career with a bitter taste of frustration. “I can do so much more,” the 26-year-old running back thought to himself.

Hyde’s first order of business was a lifestyle change. Instead of going home to Miami, he stayed in Santa Clara to endure a gruesome offseason training program with San Francisco 49ers strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright. He wanted to be lighter on his feet and better suited to handle a heavier workload. Food intake, as a result, became paramount to his success.

“I really took my diet serious,” Hyde tells Yahoo Sports. “I started only eating fish and vegetables. I stopped eating red meat. … That diet and working out with Ray helped me get in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

The early returns for the more explosive and dynamic Hyde — who has shed eight pounds since last season — have yielded excellent results.

He ranks sixth in the league in rushing, ahead of marquee names like Ezekiel Elliott, Jay Ayayi, Melvin Gordon, Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy, all Pro Bowlers. Better yet, his stellar 4.9 yards per carry tops a host of impressive names like Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Dalvin Cook, Jordan Howard and Freeman.

Against Seattle’s bruising defense in Week 2, Hyde went off for 124 yards on 15 carries, including a 61-yarder in which he outran the entire defense. Then, despite working on a short week against the Rams, the former Ohio State standout amassed 25 carries and 84 yards on the ground, to go along with two scores. It was the type of workmanlike performance he savors, earning tough goal-line yards and “keeping us on schedule,” as he likes to say.

“I feel good,” Hyde adds. “There were games last year where I didn’t feel good. I felt heavy. I felt sluggish. Right now, I feel like nothing can stop me. I’m not trying to be cocky, but I feel like I can play my best ball.”

Playing his best ball has been made increasingly difficult during his stint with the 49ers because of the incessant coaching turnover. When the team hired Kyle Shanahan as its new head coach last February, it marked Hyde’s fourth head coach — and fourth offensive coordinator — in four years.

Carlos Hyde is on pace to rush for nearly 1,300 yards and another 350 receiving. (AP)

Any reticence, however, that Hyde — in the final year of his rookie contract — may have felt buying into a new program quickly dissipated as he spent time around Shanahan.

“Seeing him as a play-caller, it’s what we need,” he says. “I think every play he calls should be a touchdown. If we execute the play correctly, it should be a touchdown, every time. I’m thinking, ‘Cool, this play right here is gonna put some points on the board for us.’ Every run he calls I’m thinking we’re definitely going to score.”

It’s not as if he didn’t have success a year ago as the Niners struggled. He ran for 988 yards — in just 13 games — along with a healthy 4.6 yards per-carry average. It’s just that he wanted more responsibility, a lot more, especially in the passing game.

In Shanahan, his wish was granted.

In his first three seasons, Hyde’s career-best topped out at 27 receptions. With 17 already this season, he’s on pace for 68, while also assuming the bell-cow role as the 49ers’ undisputed three-down workhorse in the zone-blocking scheme. Additionally, he ranks first in the league in yards before contact, according to Pro Football Focus, highlighting his deft vision and feet. He also ranks ranks sixth in yards per carry after contact (2.74), showcasing his improved strength.

“You get to do it all in this offense,” Hyde gushes. “Line up and run routes — catch the ball. At some aspect of the game, I feel like I’m gonna win. I really look forward to being a receiver because there’s a good chance you’re playing man-to-man and putting a linebacker on me. That’s one-on-one. That’s what I want. I see receivers getting it all the time: The man-to-man coverages – as a receiver, I mean it has to light you up. This is what I wanted.”

“With [Jim] Harbaugh’s offense, all you really had to do was focus on running the ball. You didn’t have to focus on playing receiver, running slants, you know running real receivers routes,” Hyde explained. “With [Jim] Tomsula and Chip Kelly, you didn’t have to worry about it at all.

“With Shanahan, now you get to play receiver. Now sometimes you’re the first read in the play. This is what I’ve always dreamed of. The sky is the limit with this offense. … Teams really gotta game plan.”

He continued: “I’m loving it. I’ve always wanted to play in an offense that allows me to play different positions to get the ball in my hands.”

Carlos Hyde tells Yahoo Sports: “I live for the moment when coach calls my number and you know it’s a down where we really need a play and I come through.” (AP)

Shanahan, to be sure, has been impressed with Hyde’s production: “We’re very happy with Carlos,” the coach said during his weekly press conference. “I’ve been very pleased.”

Hyde, who played through Week 4 while nursing a hip injury, appreciates the open dialogue system in which Shanahan has implemented, even if it’s not always a direct line of communication.

“I don’t really communicate too much with Kyle about the game plan,” he says. I really just go in with an open mind. I wouldn’t go and tell him ‘Oh, I want to do this.’ I let him be the coach. … Now my position coach, he will speak with Kyle and say, ‘Alright, this is what Carlos likes to do or doesn’t like to do.’ Just pretty much putting us in a position to win.”

Hyde has rewarded Shanahan’s confidence in him, an opportunity that he relishes and surely one that will earn him a handsome new contract after this season. The 25-year-old Freeman, as an example, is the league’s highest paid running back and another rising star. In August, he signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension with the Falcons, which included $22 million in guaranteed money.

Hyde, for his part, maintains a singular focus on a winless 49ers team in which he has infused hope.

“I live for the moment when coach calls my number and you know it’s a down where we really need a play and I come through,” he says. “It just shows you can hold me accountable. I expect all the weight to be on my shoulders. The more food on our plate, the more we get to eat.”

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