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SANTA CLARA – LaMichael James struggled to keep his footing Sunday on the 49ers’ new playing surface at Levi's Stadium.
But something else happened against the San Diego Chargers that could lead to an increase in playing time for the third-year pro: He repeatedly planted defenders on the sod while serving in pass protection.
James sustained a dislocated right elbow the first weekend of training camp upon falling to the ground and bracing himself in a pass-protection drill. But he showed no hesitancy in that aspect of the game during his exhibition debut.
After one of his successful plays in blitz pickup, James pumped his fist and reacted with pride about the job he carried out. He said his ability to bounce back and perform after returning to the field just four weeks after his injury was one part of why it meant so much to him to carry out his assignment.
“Yeah, and proving to all y’all that I pass pro,” James said. “Everybody who doubts me, I take it personal. It’s something I really want to work on. Ever since I got here, without pass blocking a lot at Oregon, it was probably one of the weakness in my game in the beginning. So I take it very serious.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: 49ers claim first exhibition win over Chargers]
When asked if it’s still a weakness in his game, James answered, “Nope. It’s not to me. I’m going to go out there and keep doing what I do. I’m not going to say I’m the best pass blocker, yet. But I’m much-improved.”
It definitely showed on Sunday.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert hit tight end Vance McDonald on a 17-yard gain late in the second quarter. James deserves credit for upending blitzing linebacker Kavell Conner to make the play possible.
On the next play, James made an outstanding cut block on outside linebacker Cordarro Law to enable a 19-yard completion to Bruce Ellington.
In the third quarter, James put blitzing cornerback Chris Davis on the ground with a block. And two plays later, he helped out with a chip block on a Chargers defensive lineman.
Although James did not fare as well with the ball in his hands, his blocking made up for it.
James slipped and twisted his left ankle as he tried to yield to up-back Bruce Miller on the opening kickoff of the game. His footing gave out when he tried to make a cut on a rushing attempt to the outside. And when he stopped to avoid the ball on a punt near the sideline, he again buckled to the ground.
James called the footing on the freshly re-sodded field “bad.”
“I think it was just bad, no matter if it was kick return, punt return or offense or whatever it was,” he said, adding that he should have worn “better cleats.”
James gained just 9 yards on seven rushing attempts. He had an 11-yard return on a kickoff.
“(I) thought he was good,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Thought he was good after he knocked a little bit of rust off. I thought his course on his first two carries was too wide, but I think after that he got in there and had some good carries. And I feel good about him right now. Good to see him knock that rust off and get up to speed quickly.”