LaMichael James strapped on the pads at 49ers training camp with big expectations for the 2012 season. How could he not? He was college football’s leading rusher as a sophomore at Oregon in 2010 and he collected more than 2,000 all-purpose yards for the Ducks a year later.
But when the season kicked off, the explosive running back watched the action from the sideline in street clothes.
“I can’t sit here and say it was fun,” James said. “Anytime you’re a competitor, you want to be on the field helping your team win.”
James’ first NFL touchdown came in the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 20 and jump-started the 49ers’ record comeback from a 17-0 deficit. The game was only James’ sixth pro contest, but his presence in the backfield alongside Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick gives the 49ers a dynamic triple threat against the Baltimore Ravens defense in Super Bowl XLVII.
“He just continued to make strides in understanding the entire offense,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “And I think he’s looked pretty good out there.”
Despite his raw talent, James showed up at minicamp completely green. At Oregon, he rarely entered a huddle, so grasping the nuances of the 49ers’ complicated pro-style offense is a process he has immersed himself in.
“They [Oregon] don’t have a lot of plays. They only have a handful of plays. We have literally hundreds of plays,” Roman said. “So, it was a bit of an adjustment from that standpoint.”
But James didn’t sulk; he allowed himself to be humble and embraced his role preparing the defense in practice.
“You just never know when your number is going to be called,” James said. “So I had to work hard in practice and when my time came I was ready to go.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh inserted James into the lineup Dec. 9 against the Miami Dolphins after running back Kendall Hunter suffered a season-ending left ankle injury against the New Orleans Saints. James picked up 30 yards on eight carries that day, and he has now amassed 180 yards on 35 touches in six games with the Niners.
The speedy back still has a tendency to hit the hole a little too quickly before things open up, so most of his runs are to the outside. James is still perfecting his timing.
“I will [grasp it] eventually,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep doing me.”
With Kaepernick at quarterback, the 49ers are implementing more and more read-option plays, which is familiar to James because of his time at Oregon. Fellow running back Frank Gore said the transition works to James’ strengths.
“Now, the offense is similar to what he did in college,” Gore said. “So, that helped him a lot.”
And it isn’t surprising that James scored his first touchdown on an Oregon-like read-option play around the edge.
“The receiver did a great job blocking and Colin made a great read,” James said.
LaMichael James didn’t get on the field until the regular season was winding down, but been part of the gameplan since:
|Dec. 9||Miami||W, 27-13||45||0|
|Dec. 16||New England||W, 41-34||31||0|
|Dec. 23||Seattle||L, 13-42||29||0|
|Dec. 30||Arizona||W, 27-13||49||0|
|Jan. 12*||Green Bay||W,45-31||28||0|
|Jan. 20*||Atlanta||W, 28-24||38||1|