LaMichael James was going to be one of the most exciting aspects of this exhibition season for the San Francisco 49ers.
It was going to be interesting to see how San Francisco’s coaches would use the quick, dynamic former Heisman Trophy candidate at Oregon – a second-round pick in April – in the Niners’ offense.
Fans were looking forward to seeing the multipurpose running back carry the ball, catch the ball out of the backfield, split out as a receiver and return punts and kickoffs.
Yet going into the team’s final exhibition game of the summer, Thursday night against the Chargers, James’ body of work is smaller than he is.
For one thing, James suffered a twisted left ankle (called a mild sprain) late in the team’s second exhibition game, against the Houston Texans, and couldn’t play this past week in the 49ers’ game against the Denver Broncos.
The injury against the Texans followed his exhibition debut against the Vikings, when James said he also tweaked the ankle.
So, to date, James has been sidelined and not at full speed.
“It just twisted out of place,” James told the San Jose Mercury News, after the game against Houston. “When it happened, I was like, ‘No!’ I kind of tweaked it the first preseason game, so it’s kind of recurring.”
So far, James – a workhorse at Oregon – has had just eight carries for 36 yards and no touchdowns, and has yet to catch a ball. On special teams he’s returned two punts for 1 yard, but has five kickoff returns for 123 yards – a 24.6-yard average.
With No. 1 kickoff return man Ted Ginn Jr. sidelined, possibly for San Francisco’s season opener in Green Bay Sept. 9, the 49ers would love to have James available to handle kick-return duties. Right now, Kendall Hunter is listed as Ginn’s backup in that regard.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch reports James says he will play Thursday night against the Chargers, so 49ers fans may finally get a chance to see what James can do. A full night of duty could get James ready to go for that Packers opener.
Branch reports James as saying his ankle is feeling much better.
Though James needs the game reps, will the Niners actually show his versatility against the Chargers? Probably not.
Figure the 49ers to use James in standard, vanilla formations – simply carrying the ball and perhaps catching the ball on simple patterns out of the backfield.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff typically show nothing more during the preseason – on offense or defense – so fans will likely have to wait until the regular season to see what the coaches have up their sleeves for James.
With Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Hunter and James in the backfield, the 49ers coaching staff could get very creative to keep all those backs fresh and involved.
Surely, the 49ers will use James in special ways. At 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, James’ surprising strength and quickness could be lethal in the open field and even in short-yardage and goal-line situations, where he showed a knack for scoring in college.
“I feel like I have a variety of skill sets,” James said earlier this year after becoming a 49er. “Returning ability, I can run in between the tackles, I can catch the ball, I can do pretty much everything they ask me to do.”
At this point, Niners fans just want to see him on the field.