35 rushing attempts, 180 rushing yards and one touchdown. While at Oregon, that would be considered a below average showing for LaMichael James over six quarters. In his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers, those numbers encompass his production over six games. Yet, considering where James started this year, those numbers belie a degree of improvement and growth that is incapable without the help of many.
“I can still remember the first mini-camp when he showed up coming from Oregon’s offense and just what a difference it was,” said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
“We’re a team that huddles to start with. That’s the first thing. And they might say one word and that means a play. And they don’t have a lot of plays. They only have a handful of plays. We have literally hundreds of plays.”
James, whose training camp debut was delayed until Oregon’s spring quarter ended in June, wasn’t just tasked with memorizing a weighty playbook. Skill position players in San Francisco are expected to block, something he was never asked to do as a Duck. If the leading rusher in franchise history could sell out his body to protect his quarterback, so could a speedy rookie from the Pac-12.
Roman and Jim Harbaugh often note how Frank Gore would make a fine coach someday. The questions about Kendall Hunter (Is he too small? Will he get Alex Smith killed?) vanished as the 2011 season progressed, and were completely forgotten in 2012. Not coincidentally, Gore has referred to Hunter as “my little brother.” James, a decorated back who came out of college facing the same questions as Hunter, listened to the master.
“(Gore) helps me out tremendously. Especially with pass blocking and knowing what front the defense is in, knowing who I have to block,” James said. “He’s still coaching me up every day.”
Just how good is Gore, according to James? “Best blocker in the NFL. Ever.”
But even the best blocker ever had to learn his craft from someone. Running backs coach Tom Rathman was a fairly decent blocker himself during his playing days, to put it mildly. While it’s no surprise that Gore is generous with his knowledge, I wanted to know how much of an effect Rathman has had on his development.
“Pretty much all of it,” James said. “Even in the summer. When I first got here he stayed extra with me. Helped me get the offense down pat and a lot of the blitzing.”
So far, we’ve listed Gore and Rathman as men who deserve credit for James’ rise from the inactives list to a vital cog in an NFC Championship Game victory. But one can also point to Trent Baalke for drafting him in the second round. At the time James was considered to be a luxury pick by some folks, who wondered whether more depth at that position was really necessary.
Then there’s Harbaugh and Roman, who patiently waited for James to become a complete player, all while fielding questions on a near-weekly basis about the status of their first two draft picks. They’re still waiting for A.J. Jenkins to live up to his promise, but James took advantage of his opportunity. After Hunter went down with a torn Achilles and Brandon Jacobs fell victim to a ruptured ego, James was ready.
“While (James) wasn’t active earlier in the year, he gave our defense a great look in practice, which is very, very important to get the team ready,” according to Roman. “And he just continued to make strides in understanding the entire offense. And I think he’s looked pretty good out there.”
That’s where we get to the part where James gets a little credit. Some people are born to be stars, and throughout my year covering the team it has been impossible not to watch him whenever possible. During training camp he stood out during special teams drills. Unlike Jenkins, James didn’t regularly drop punts shot from the Jugs machine high into the Santa Clara sky. His cuts were precise, and in one-on-one drills he flashed skills as a pursuing defender (the 49ers like to turn the tables position-wise for almost all their players, especially during the summer).
The perfect story would includes a mention about how James handled his inactive status with a stoic, never-changing demeanor each week, but that wouldn’t be completely true. He never seemed comfortable watching pregame warmups in street clothes, but he continued to work … and smartly avoided taking to Twitter with his frustrations like Jacobs often did.
“Coach Harbaugh runs a great program,” James said on Thursday. It makes sense he’d word it this way, since the collegiate battles between Harbaugh’s Cardinal and James’ Ducks surely had quite a bit to do with James coming to San Francisco. Buying into the program is non-negotiable in Harbaughland, and that a star on James’ level could become both a willing blocker and so-called “change of pace” back looks good on both men.
However, for all the talk about blocking, flashes of James’ incredible running talent have drawn the most attention recently. It’s not just the speed he displayed on that touchdown run in Atlanta, but how he has shown that first contact is by no means his kryptonite. How effort has led to an extra two or three yards on several rushing plays. How he runs as if trying to prove he’s not a third down back, or some gimmick who thrives predominantly on quick feet and being hard to spot behind the 49ers’ gigantic offensive line.
Due to all those things, and all the people previously mentioned, James’ career is taking off. Maybe not to the extent that we’re seeing with his buddy, Colin Kaepernick, but Kaepernick is also two years older and has an extra year of NFL experience. James’ opportunity to become a featured back will come.
Mere weeks ago, James was the guy who helped the 49ers’ defense prepare for the next running back on the schedule. Now he’s one of the players the Baltimore Ravens must prepare for. Unfortunately for Baltimore, James keeps getting better. In his last three games (including the playoffs), James has rushed 15 times for 104 yards, which equates to nearly seven yards per carry. Or, in other words, about the same amount he averaged at Oregon.