Niners running back LaMichael James hasn't had much of a chance to carry the ball. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
At Oregon, LaMichael James was one of the nation’s best and most dynamic playmakers.
The running back rushed for more than 5,000 yards in his career for the Ducks and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. And at the NFL Combine, he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, showing NFL scouts and execs he had the speed to make plays in the NFL.
When the 49ers drafted receiver A.J. Jenkins and James with their top two picks in the 2012 draft, Niners GM Trent Baalke declared, “What we’ve tried to do is add speed and explosiveness to this offense and to this football team. With these two picks, we’ve done that.”
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Jenkins never played and James’ impact has been limited.
Playing in just 10 games in 2013, James had only 12 regular-season carries for 59 yards and no touchdowns, but averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He did slip into a role as the 49ers’ primary punt and kickoff returner when Kyle Williams and others didn’t pan out, and played well. He returned 23 punts for 251 yards – a 10.9-yard average – and had a long return of 40 yards. On kickoffs, he had 12 returns for 321 yards – a 26.8 average. Had James qualified, he would have ranked fourth in the NFL in punt returns and fourth in kickoffs.
The question is, will James ever get the chance to be a featured back in the 49ers’ offense?
Right now, it certainly doesn’t appear so. Frank Gore may be 30, but he again rushed for more than 1,000 yards this past season and was a ferocious blocker in pass protection. And Kendall Hunter returned from his 2012 injury and resumed his role as Gore’s primary backup. Even Anthony Dixon had more carries (28).
Now, Marcus Lattimore is healthy again after a knee injury in college at South Carolina and could be the heir apparent to Gore. That makes for a deep and talented corps of running backs – even before this year’s draft – but clouds James’ future at the position.
It’s been obvious that when James has had a chance to carry the ball, he’s produced. Yet either his performance in practice has been lacking – causing his coaches to not have confidence in him – or the staff simply has liked Hunter and Dixon much better.
In ranking the players on the 49ers roster this week, Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, who covers the 49ers, put James at No. 36 on the roster, writing: “The 2012 second-round pick hasn’t made a huge impact as a running back, but he hasn’t gotten much of a chance, either. However, he proved to be a solid kick and punt returner in the second half of the season. He has ability.”
James expressed his frustration with the lack of playing time early in 2013, but continued to work hard in practice until finally getting his chance as the team’s returner.
“It was hard, especially when you have confidence in yourself,” he told a reporter from The Associated Press in January, just before the NFC Championship Game. “You’re a competitor and you want to be out there on the field contributing in some way. I can’t say it wasn’t tough. I wanted to be out there with the guys.”
When he finally got his opportunities to contribute on special teams, he often seemed just on the verge of breaking a long return. His work in the playoff victory against Green Bay was stellar. He had a 37-yard kickoff return to set up the 49ers’ late-game drive for the winning score, while also returning three punts for 78 yards.
“He was rock solid,” said head coach Jim Harbaugh.
For now, it appears that James will have to be content to make his biggest contributions as a return man. Whether he’ll be content with that in 2014 and beyond is the bigger question.