The 49ers had been looking for more production in their return game, and it appears they’ve found it in second-year running back LaMichael James.
Over the past two games, James has been much more productive on punt returns, specifically, than Kyle Williams, who began the season as the No. 1 punt returner. Williams – since released – had fair catches on 20 of 32 opportunities. And, on his 12 returns he managed just 61 yards, an average of just over 5 yards.
In three games now as the Niners’ primary punt returner, James has 130 yards on returns and has only two fair catches in 12 opportunities.
On Monday night in the 49ers’ 27-6 victory over Washington, James averaged 14.4 yards per punt return and had a 40-yarder in the third quarter that set up a San Francisco touchdown.
On that return, James collected the punt and sped down the sideline, eventually getting pushed out of bounds at the Washington 39-yard line with 4:15 remaining in the third quarter. Five plays later, the 49ers scored on Colin Kaepernick’s 1-yard pass to tight end Vernon Davis.
Against the Redskins, James had 125 yards on punt and kickoff returns (72 on punts, 53 on kickoffs).
“Great to see some big plays there,” head coach Jim Harbaugh told the team’s website.
James, who’s had limited chances to run the ball this season because of the health and production of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and even Anthony Dixon, has been happy to be able to contribute.
“I’m going to compete and try to help my team win,” he said after Monday night’s victory. “The only thing I was trying to do was get the ball to the offense in great field position.”
Last week, after a solid game against the Saints in which he had 58 yards on five punt returns, James said he is much more confident this season in that role than he was as a rookie.
“I feel 100 percent better,” he told Bill Williamson of ESPN.com. “I’m much more comfortable. It’s exciting to get a chance. I have to be aggressive when I get the ball and that’s what I try to do.”
Monday night, in fact, James might have been too aggressive on one late-game punt, appearing to take off too soon before he’d secured the catch. The ball tumbled away, but James was able to pounce on it. Afterward, he told Taylor Price of 49ers.com that he was thinking more about that mistake than his 40-yard return.
Now with the 49ers back on the winning track and improved to 7-4, they’ll get ready this week to host the St. Louis Rams (5-6) on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. It’ll be one more chance for James to show the 49ers what he can do as their new return man.
“I feel like I’m going to break one soon,” he told Price.