If you can't beat them, have 'em join you.
That's what 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said when he selected Oregon running back LaMichael James in the second round. James gave Harbaugh and his Stanford program a plethora of fits because of his speed and versatility, both characteristics that he brings to a team that severely lacked them last season.
Despite adding bulldozing tailback Brandon Jacobs from the Giants in the offseason to help out the underrated Frank Gore and the hard-nosed Kendall Hunter, the 49ers looked to add more explosiveness to the stable and did so by selecting the former Oregon Duck.
James is a smaller back at 5'8" and 194 pounds, which usually would dock the value of his game in the eyes of NFL personnel men. And when one analyzes at his career in review, perhaps it did, but apparently not enough to the 49ers, who brought him in to complement the rest of the tailbacks on the roster in their West Coast Offense.
Dating back to the golden years of the Bill Walsh-led 49ers, the tailback had an important role in the system, and that hasn't changed under second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The tailback has to fill the role of an outlet receiver to the quarterback when the rest of the receivers are covered and as a receiver in a two-man combination concept, such as Curl-Flat, which has the tailback running a flat route, as well as in a check-release role.
The check-release role has the back to be a pass-blocker first, requiring him to go through his keys, and then becoming an option for the quarterback as an outlet receiver.
This may seem like a simple role for the tailback, but not so; most rookie runners have issues in pass protection, and while James is still improving in that department, he has the ability to become a surprisingly good blocker, which is beneficial to him because it gets him out on the field more.
James has two things going for him in this department: toughness and size. James is a very tough athlete, as he has good strength in his lower body and can take some punishment. Furthermore, initially, his size appears to be a detriment; however, it is not because he has a natural leverage advantage and is able to sit in his base, enabling him to anchor against blitzing defenders.
Moreover, the Oregon product has very good hands and is able to run a variety of routes from a split position or from the backfield. He's ran from the simple bubble screen, which enables him to do damage after the catch, to vertical comeback, which he does a good job of running by creating separation from the defender as well as creating space down the sideline for the ball to be placed by the quarterback. This ability fits into the 49ers scheme because they will be able to create matchup advantages by getting him on an outside linebacker.
But what kind of runner is he, is the question one may ask?
James is a quick-footed and explosive running back that has very good straight-line speed. He does a good job of bouncing from hole to hole (a la Thomas Jones) and displays quality vision to find the cutback lane as seen in the Inside Zone run concept that the Ducks offense bases their offense around and is frequently used in the NFL.
An example of his vision on this run concept was seen against Stanford this past season. The Ducks lined up in shotgun set with 11 personnel, which means one running back and one tight end, as they often do, and prepared to run their Inside Zone Read.
At the snap of the ball, James took a lateral step toward the quarterback, who read the unblocked blitzing defender from the backside. While the quarterback read the defender, he put the ball in the belly of James and subsequently decided to hand it off after seeing that the blitzing defender from the backside was not going to go after the James.
When James received the ball, he scanned the defenders in the trenches and identified his key: the outside hip of the left guard.
The outside hip of the left guard (since the play is being ran left) tells James if he is going to continue his path to the outside and then up the outside hip of the guard or cut it to the back side of the play. Because the defender is penetrating to the outside of the key, James makes a cutback to the right and finds open space.
After making a cut to the back side, James brings it back to the play side by finding another running lane that frees him into the open field for the touchdown.
This kind of ability will make it hard for Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman to keep him off the field, which is why he's likely to receive a various roles that put him on the field despite still being eased into the playbook.
There's also a likely chance that James gets an opportunity at the kick and punt return jobs, which would enable him to change the game around by flipping field position or potentially scoring a touchdown with his ability to make defenders miss and lightning straight-line speed.
James' versatility and explosiveness makes him a great fit for the 49ers offense. He is a quality runner that can stretch the defense horizontally through the Inside Zone run concept and then find the cutback lane while also displaying the ability to hit the home-run with his lightning straight-line speed.
Not to mention, James has quick feet and soft hands to run various routes to create separation from the defender and creating space from the sideline that allows the quarterback to throw the ball in the open area.