There are no redshirts in the NFL, but LaMichael James has undertaken an understudy role in his first year with the 49ers. On a San Francisco team with a stable of talented tailbacks, James is working hard as he waits for his opportunity behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon.
The former University of Oregon standout has been inactive for the first seven games of his NFL career, but has learned immensely from the teammates and mentors ahead of him on the depth chart, especially Gore.
“He comes out to practice and he works hard each and every day,” James said. “When you’re watching him, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ He practices hard, always finishes runs. He’s a complete pro. I just want to idolize myself after him and try to pick up some of the cues so hopefully one day I can be a great running back in this league, too.”
When James arrived on Oregon’s campus as a true freshman in 2008, he faced a similar situation as a redshirt. He worked hard behind the scenes as he waited for his break behind current Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson, currently a practice squad member of the Denver Broncos.
James finally stepped between the lines in the fall of 2009 and never looked back, establishing himself as one of college football’s most electrifying players en route to scoring 58 touchdowns in three seasons. Looking at his current situation for the 49ers, James sees many parallels to the beginning of his college career.
“It’s the exact same,” James said. “Went to Oregon and it was just kind of how I am now – scout team, running plays each and every day and not really expecting to play. Then when you get your opportunity, you have to go out there and prove that you’re worth it and that you can help the team win.”
The 49ers faithful might not see it on Sundays, but James is developing his game on a daily basis on the practice fields behind team headquarters in Santa Clara. Not only does James pose as a scout team running back, but he occasionally lines up at receiver to give the 49ers defense a speedy look.
He’s also getting plenty of hands-on work with special teams coordinator Brad Seely on his kick and punt return duties, another area where he excelled during his college career. In fact, several players have credited James throughout the year for helping them prepare as part of San Francisco’s scout teams.
As he bides his time behind the 49ers starters, James is keeping a great attitude.
“I’m competitive,” James said. “So I want to be out there playing with the guys and help the team win, but I’m not really frustrated.”
It’s not like San Francisco is hurting in the run game, as the 49ers average an NFL-best 5.9 yards per carry and rank No. 2 with a 176.6 yards per game. In the meantime, James will continue to glean from his teammates and coaches until his number is called.
“I think I can play with anybody out there. I really do believe that,” James said. “But at the same time, I do need to learn. That’s big. Learning an NFL game, that’s a huge step for me just to get that down pat first before I go out there and make a fool of myself.”
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