LaMichael James Enjoys the Big Stage
The San Francisco 49ers’ second-round draft pick is not your average rookie.
That’s right, LaMichael James, the same player who tormented Jim Harbaugh for years when the two were collegiate combatants in the Pac-12, brings a great deal of swagger as the 49ers enter a repeat appearance in the NFC title game.
James, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound runner selected No. 61 overall out of the University of Oregon, isn’t feeling anxious about Sunday’s matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. Instead, San Francisco’s No. 2 running back and kickoff return man is looking at it like it’s the next big game on his already impressive track record.
The speedy running back is two years removed from playing in the BCS National Championship game; an experience that only taught James how to keep emotions in check before a game with much at stake.
“I think that really helped me out with getting to big games like this,” James explained on Tuesday. “It’s kind of second nature to me.”
What’s more, James is supremely confident in his abilities when it comes to helping the 49ers try to advance to the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl.
“I just look at it like another game,” said James, who rushed for 21 yards and supplied a 23-yard kick-off return in San Francisco’s 45-31 Divisional Playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. “No other game is bigger than the first one or the second one, you got to go out there and you got to compete. You never know when your last snap is going to be. You can get hurt – anything can possibly happen. That’s how I’m going to treat this game.”
James’ mindset is even more impressive when taking his rookie playing time under consideration. The confident runner was inactive for 12 games to start his professional football career. James, however, didn’t let his lack of playing time become a distraction.
Instead, James was focused on working and not worrying. Soon after, his opportunities came knocking at a Dec. 9 home game against the Miami Dolphins. There, James rushed for 30 yards, caught a 15-yard reception and added 79 yards on three kick-off returns.
James finished the regular season with 27 carries for 125 yards (4.6 per carry) to go along with a 29.8 average on 14 kick-off returns.
The production carried over into the postseason, too. James ran hard against the Packers and worked perfectly with Colin Kaepernick on designed zone-read option plays.
On Kaepernick’s 56-yard rushing touchdown, the third longest rushing score in 49ers postseason history, James carried out a run fake up the middle, took a minor hit from Green Bay’s defense and still had a pretty decent view point of the gifted quarterback’s touchdown dash.
“I saw everyone come up on me and he was gone,” James recalled. “That’s the only thing I could see – the back of his jersey.”
That was a common sight for Green Bay’s defense as well.
But in order to continue that success against the Falcons on Championship Sunday, James will continue to trust his instincts and muscle memory. James ran the spread attack in college and feels at home running it in the pros next to Kaepernick.
“Anytime we can do some of those reads and Frank and I get the ball,” James detailed, “it’s fun, especially when you have an athletic quarterback.”
According to James, those plays would never work if not for trust between quarterback and running back.
“I think it’s an instinctive deal,” James said. “He made the right read – he took it and he was off.”
Furthermore, James doesn’t look at the running lane prior to hand-off either. No, his eyes are on the ball.
“I’m looking at it,” James explained, “go in and then once he pulls it, it’s gone… You’ve got to look at the ball, you get the ball first.”
And while those types of plays with elite runners on the field are difficult to defend, James doesn’t have to worry about that. All he has to do is carry out the run fakes if Kaepernick elects to keep the ball, or find his own running room should the quarterback hand the ball off.
“He makes the right reads, too,” James said of his quarterback, before adding, “Colin’s a great quarterback. He doesn’t just run the ball; everybody knows he can throw the ball, too.”
James credited the 49ers coaches for trusting the team’s personnel to carry out the zone-read plays against the Packers and proving to the football world how effective collegiate plays can be in the professional ranks.
It’s also a team effort according to James. Successful zone-read runs are about the other nine players as much as it is about the quarterback and running back being on the same page.
“The o-line did a great job and receivers did a great job of blocking downfield,” James said. “I think Ted (Ginn Jr.) had a couple key blocks on a couple of Kaepernick’s runs.”
Such moments only bode well for James’ development in his first professional season. But what’s really making things easier is the guidance the young running back receives on the practice fields from veteran and coaches alike.
As San Francisco’s backup return man on punts, James has grown tremendously in that area of his game. He credits special teams coordinator Brad Seely for those improvements in fielding both punts and kicks.
“Working with Coach Seely every day, it’s really helping me out,” James said. “I think the more you practice, the better you get.”
James is certainly at home on the big stage of a much-talked about football game, all while improving as a professional player. However, he still wants to be the spark to help San Francisco reach the Super Bowl.
James’ 62-yard kick-off return led to a go-ahead touchdown against the New England Patriots in a Week 15 road win. It led to a big road victory on another big stage, “Sunday Night Football.”
This time around, James aims to find ways to impact the game either on offense or by breaking another big kick return to spark the 49ers in a nationally televised game.
“I need to,” he said. “I’m happy any time I get the football across the 30 and give the offense better field position, but yeah, anything you can do to get a win, it’s going to be helpful, so I’m happy to be doing it.”
Turns out, James’ debut against the Dolphins was just the start of his contributions to San Francisco’s postseason run.
“I had a lot to learn and I’m still learning,” James said. “I’m very blessed to be in the position I’m in. I say thanks to my teammates and coaches for guiding me and helping me out thus far.”