Three and Out: 'Insurance policy' James; 49ers drafted thinking ahead
“I don’t think I’d be a competitor if I said I’m happy to be sitting on the sideline every week." (AP)
Programming note: Watch today's 49ers press conference from Santa Clara streaming live online right here at 12 p.m.
SANTA CLARA – The 49ers, apparently, had high hopes for speedster LaMichael James. The club selected him in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft just one year after choosing running back Kendall Hunter in the fourth round.
LaMichael James finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore at Oregon, and placed in the top 10 as a junior before turning pro. He rushed for more than 5,000 yards in his three college seasons, and averaged 7.3 yards per rushing attempt in his final year.
But James has found himself mostly as a scout-team player and out of uniform on game days as one of the 49ers’ seven inactive players in 16 of his 22 regular-season games since arriving in the NFL.
“Oh, yeah, it’s very difficult,” James told CSNBayArea.com on Wednesday. “I don’t think I’d be a competitor if I said I’m happy to be sitting on the sideline every week. I’m confident. I think I’m a good player, and I can play with anybody. At times, it gets bothering. But I have to suck it up and keep getting better.”
James sustained a knee sprain in the final exhibition game that kept him out for the first couple games of the regular season. He was active for games against St. Louis and Houston, but saw limited play time with 31 yards on seven attempts in those two games. But with linebacker Patrick Willis available to play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers chose to deactivate James.
When asked about his role and where he stands on the team, James answered, “I really don’t even know, to give an honest answer.”
He added, “The only thing I can do is go out there and just keep working hard. That’s the only thing I can control. The other stuff, really, is left up to the coaches. I just got to go out there and keep playing, keep competing and getting better.”
James is considered the No. 3 running back. Frank Gore sees the bulk of the playing time as the starter. The coaching staff considers Hunter a more versatile all-around performer than James. And Anthony Dixon has gotten the call on game days over James because he can play halfback, fullback and has a greater role on special teams.
If the 49ers decide on a week-to-week basis to activate four running backs, James gets the call. If they dress three running backs, James does not have a role. James said he is learning to cope with the blow to his pride.
“It matters how you look at it,” he said. “If you’d asked me that a couple weeks ago, it would’ve been a blow. But, right now, I look at it as a way to get better.”
James said his spirits are much higher after he received encouraging words over the past couple week from his teammates.
“They see it,” James said. “I’m here to try to make those guys better. I think we have one of the best defenses, and going against those guys all last year made me better. It made it easier for me, so I’m just at that point with it.”
James did not suit up for the first 12 games of his rookie season. It was not until Hunter was lost for the season with an Achilles tear and veteran Brandon Jacobs failed to step up that James finally got the call. He finished the regular season with 125 yards on 27 rushing attempts. In three postseason games, he gained 65 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Heading into this season, James figured his days of wondering from week-to-week whether he’d be in uniform were over.
“Yeah, yeah, I really did,” James said. “It sucks, you know, to go into a week and you never know if you’re going to dress, especially if your family asks you. They want to go to a game, ‘Hey, are you playing?’ You just never know. I think that gets a little frustrating at times. But, other than that, I guess it’ll be all right.”
James handled kickoff-return duties last season, and provided one of the big plays with a 62-yard return against the New England Patriots that helped set up the winning touchdown. But the 49ers have decided his contributions in that area – with most kickoffs resulting in touchbacks, anyway – are not enough to justify deactivating another player who might see more action on special teams.
James worked all of last season on catching punts. But, clearly, the 49ers still have more confidence in Kyle Williams handling that duty. Williams has cleanly handled every punt this season. He has averaged respectable 7.1 yards per return with a league-high 16 fair catches.
“I feel I can contribute any way they ask me,” James said. “Right now, they need me to contribute on scout team. That’s what I’m going to do to the best of my ability. So that’s where I’m at with that.”
James said he has not spoken directly to coach Jim Harbaugh or running backs coach Tom Rathman about his role.
“They have to worry about the team,” he said. “I never want to be a ‘me guy.’ The team is way bigger than me. I’m just going to try to go out there and get better each day. The coaches know what they’re doing. They got the team going, and I don’t want to be a distraction and just keep working.”
Harbaugh addressed James’ role earlier this week: “There’s going to come time, like last year, where he’s fully in the mix and depended on and that time will come again.”
And if his rookie season taught him one thing, it’s that his time can come at any moment. And when it does, he better be ready to contribute.
“You can be thrown into the mix at any moment,” James said. “That’s how I got to look at it. Anything can happen in practice or pregame, you never know. When your number is called, you got to be ready to go. You know teammates are counting on you, and you have to be prepared. The NFL doesn’t wait for anybody.”
In line images of LaMichael James provided by USATSI