SANTA CLARA, Calif. – LaMichael James has transformed himself from a rookie spectator forced to watch the first three months of the NFL season to a key contributor on San Francisco’s Super Bowl team in a matter of weeks.
After being inactive the first 12 games of the season, James has become an impact player for the 49ers, who face the Baltimore Ravens next week.
His long kickoff return set up the go-ahead score in a late-season win in New England. His experience running the zone read helped Colin Kaepernick rush for 181 yards in a win to open the playoffs against Green Bay. Then James got into the scoring act last week, starting San Francisco’s comeback in a 28-24 win over Atlanta in the NFC championship game.
“I had a lot to learn,” James said. “I’m still learning. I’m very blessed to be in the situation I’m in.”
Fresh off scoring his first professional touchdown in last week’s win over the Falcons, James is finally fulfilling the expectations the Niners had for him after drafting him in the second round last April following a stellar college career at Oregon.
“From the first time he stepped on the field, he’s been dynamic,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Getting on the field was the hard part. James was inactive the first 12 games to adjust to playing from a huddle after being part of Oregon’s fast-paced offense for three years and to learn a much more extensive playbook than he was used to with the Ducks.
James dutifully worked at learning his craft, making his contributions as a scout team running back and receiver and soaking in whatever tips he could get from starter Frank Gore and running backs coach Tom Rathman.
“It was very different,” James said. “I’d never really been in a huddle since I was in high school. Actually, sitting in a huddle and then having to remember it – and not just run it – that was a little bit different for me, but it all works out.”
James got his chance after Kendall Hunter went down with a season-ending Achilles’ injury in New Orleans on Nov. 25. The Niners needed a change-of-pace back to team with Gore and James proved to be a perfect fit.
James was helped by the fact the Niners’ offense had changed a bit with the switch at quarterback to Kaepernick from Alex Smith, using more read-option plays James was so proficient at in college.