James wants to be elite returner, but not return specialist

James wants to be elite returner, but not return specialist
June 11, 2014, 9:00 am
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I think Frank’s the best, and I think Kendall is super-good, too. It’s nothing against them. But with that being said, am I supposed to be happy just returning kicks and catching punts? No, not really.
LaMichael James

SANTA CLARA -- LaMichael James did not field any punts as a rookie in 2012. Last season, he took over in the middle of the season after Kyle Williams lost his handle on the return chores and was released.

“I want to return kicks,” James said Tuesday after a voluntary 49ers offseason practice. “I do feel like I can be one of the best in the league at it. I need to embrace that role right now. I really want to be the best at it.”

He is striving to be an elite return man in the NFL, but he has no interest in being a return specialist.

James tied for 10th in the NFL with a 10.9-yard average on 23 returns last season. This offseason, he looks more comfortable handling punts -- even in the stiff wind on the team's practice field.

But James is certainly not satisfied getting the ball in his hands only as a return man. James played just 28 snaps on offense last season behind running backs Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon.

[REWIND: Baalke: Still no plan to trade LaMichael James]

Dixon signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent, but things get no easier for James with the additions of Carlos Hyde, a second-round draft pick, and Marcus Lattimore.

“It’s nothing against our running backs,” James said. “I think Frank’s the best, and I think Kendall is super-good, too. It’s nothing against them. But with that being said, am I supposed to be happy just returning kicks and catching punts? No, not really.

“I’m a competitor. I want to go out and compete. Whatever it is, catching some passes, whatever. I want to play running back, too. I feel I can do it at the highest level. That’s the only thing that frustrates me.”

James made to attempt to hide his frustration with his minimal role through two NFL seasons after being a second-round draft pick in 2012.

“If I said I wasn’t frustrated, you know, I’d be lying to you,” he said. “And I’m not going to lie.”

When asked if he addressed his issues with the team’s coaching staff, James said, “It’s evident. It’s not like it’s not out there. It’s not like I have a beef with the coaches or there’s bad blood, because there’s not. I’m just trying to go out and compete and get more time on the field.”

James missed the first four weeks of the 49ers’ voluntary offseason program. He became a first-time father this offseason, but he admitted his dissatisfaction also factored into his initial decision to train on his own.

[REWIND: James trains in Texas as 49ers' offseason program begins]

“I was going to take time to be with my kid. I think that’s important, and that’s something I wanted to do,” James said. “But did it (frustration) play a part? Yeah, it did.”

James said he had a change of heart and decided to report to Santa Clara during the last week of “football school” to join his teammates and focus on getting better.

And James said he knows the only way he can find a way into the 49ers’ offensive plan is to prove he is better than most of the other running backs on the team's loaded roster.

“We have a lot of good running backs, and I can compete with any of them, I feel like,” James said. “But the best players play. If something happens, they beat me out, or whatever it is, then, power to them. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to pout because I got beat out.”