Niners running back LaMichael James celebrates his first NFL TD, vs. the Falcons. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Maybe it was a good thing LaMichael James was buried on the 49ers’ depth chart.
Maybe it was good he had to wait his turn, learn his lessons and watch the rest of the team do battle with the NFL for the first three-quarters of the season.
James, after all, is the 49ers’ freshest weapon as they head into Super Bowl XLVII Sunday against the Ravens.
When he comes into the game for San Francisco, he’ll have fresh legs and a desire to show what he can do after patiently awaiting his chance.
“I had a lot to learn,” James told the media this week. “I’m still learning. I’m very blessed to be in the situation I’m in.”
James began the season behind starting running back Frank Gore and No. 2 Kendall Hunter. Plus, the 49ers had signed free-agent Brandon Jacobs in the off-season and veteran Anthony Dixon also was in the mix.
But after the second-round pick from Oregon sat out the first 12 games, he’s flashed his game-breaking speed and quickness since Hunter was lost with an injury and Jacobs became a non-factor.
In the final four regular-season games, James carried 27 times for 125 yards (a 4.6-yard average) and had three catches for 29 yards. In addition, it was his long kickoff return late in a December game against the Patriots that set up the 49ers for a 41-34 win.
In two playoff games he’s averaged 6.9 yards per carry (55 yards on eight attempts), caught two passes for 11 yards and scored his first professional touchdown in the NFC Championship Game victory over the Falcons on a slashing 15-yard run off right tackle.
The rookie says it took him awhile to completely absorb the 49ers playbook and feel comfortable, so sitting and waiting for his chance wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Then, when he did get his chance, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was leading the offense and the team was running more Pistol and read-option plays and James – who played in a read-option system at Oregon – was a perfect fit.
Now James has given the 49ers some quick, fresh legs and an extra burst of speed when he comes in for Gore.
“Once he started getting comfortable, we saw a dynamic football player,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner told the Associated Press. “It’s a testament to him to be able to sit on the sideline and be on the developmental squad, as we like to call it, here for so long and actually knowing you can play football.”
Said head coach Jim Harbaugh: “From the first time he stepped on the field, he’s been dynamic."
After scoring his first pro TD vs. the Falcons, James was asked what that meant to him.
“I just think about the win,” James told 49ers.com. “Anything to help the team win, I’m all for it. Just putting points on the board to help the team win made me excited, made me happy. I really didn’t think about it too much, I just wanted to win the game.”
With Kaepernick, Gore and James, the 49ers’ rushing attack offers three very fast, elusive runners. San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week that James' talent and familiarity with the entire offense and the read-option in particular gives the Niners one more excellent offensive weapon.
“The bottom line is LaMichael’s a football player,” Roman said. “Anything football is not foreign to him. So while he 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.
“He just continued to make strides in understanding the entire offense and I think he’s looked pretty good out there.”