LaMichael James Will Be the San Francisco 49ers' Best Rookie in 2012
An overabundance of running backs won't stop former record breaking Oregon running back LaMichael James from making headlines out of San Francisco's backfield.
The second round selection is more likely to make a greater impact than first round wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and the rest of the draft class because of a quicker transition to the league, versatility and explosiveness.
Transitioning to the NFL can be a tough challenge for rookies because of the speed of the game and various responsibilities assigned. However, it's a different challenge for James than it is for, say, first round pick A.J. Jenkins.
Jenkins comes into the league as a Wide Receiver—one of the toughest positions to develop into because it's significantly different than the college game. Typically, it takes receivers three to four years to settle into the NFL and realize their potential, if they do at all. It takes roughly the same amount of time to completely understand Jim Harbaugh's West Coast Offense scheme.
The West Coast Offense, or "Down by the River Offense" as the originator Walsh called it, features a significant amount of complex terminology, far more complex than that of a typical offense because the responsibilities of the player are literally spelled out.
Further, the offense is based off of rhythm/timing and detail, which is why it's crucial for the receiver to get on the same page with his quarterback and run his routes to perfection. Jenkins must take the correct steps on the stem of his route and break it off at the right time. Not to mention, receivers reads change, going from purely reading cornerback leverage to having to understand not only cornerback but safety too.
In contrast, James plays a position where he is already familiar with the base run concepts—power, lead, counter, toss, inside and outside zone—(because they are just about all the same within every offense) and enables him to make plays instinctively, which is what he does best.
His biggest adjustment will be learning his blocking assignments, which can be complicated due to a plethora of looks being thrown at the offense by the defense. Defenses are using sub-packages (five, six and even seven defensive backs) that cover multiple receivers while also playing the run successfully. These defenses consequently create problems for blockers because there are several moving players before the snap.
However, he's unlikely to spend much time blocking initially and the real damage that he'll do is with his versatility as a runner, pass catcher and possibly a returner on special teams.
As a runner, James is very dangerous because he can get to the end zone at any time, especially when he gets into the open field. He is often able to get into the second and third levels of the field because of his quickness and ability to make initial would-be tacklers miss, as seen against the University of Southern California.
His stop-start ability is a very impressive part of his skill-set, something not all running backs have.
Once James gets into the open field, he has the ability to take it for six because of his 4.45 forty yard dash. As can be seen in the video below, James not only can make defenders miss, as previously noted, but he can turn the corner, get down the sideline and keep his balance to continue running despite receiving contact.
As seen in the last clip and in the following one, James has good balance and keeps his feet moving when dealing with contact, enabling him to pick up extra yardage opposed to falling backwards. This is also something that Frank Gore does an exceptional job as well.
What the clips also illustrate is his acceleration and burst once he sees a hole. James is very fast through the hole, which is important to note because many rookie running backs are fast to the hole and consequently, don't let the play properly develop.
When tailbacks do this, it implies that the game is moving too fast for them, as seen with raw runners such as Daniel Thomas of the Miami Dolphins last season and during his time at Kansas State.
Moreover, James also has the potential to be a threat on special teams for the 49ers. Like the running back position, the franchise has several options to choose from for the kick and punt return jobs, but it's possible that James gets his shot at the duties as well.
At Oregon, he did not return kickoffs or punts a significant amount because of the other track stars that the team possessed, but when he did, he proved to be dangerous.
Although he had few chances, James made some big plays for the team by flipping field position or taking it all the way into the opposition's end zone as he did against Nevada last season.
James took the ball 58 yards for the score once he caught it, bouncing off of tacklers and keeping his balance in the middle of the field en route to accelerating to the end zone.
These explosive plays will be a great addition to the 49ers, who were unable to consistently come up with big plays down the field when they needed them the most.
James is a very dynamic running back that is also versatile in that he can find creases in the running game to spring him for a long run while also catching the ball, whether it be from the backfield on a screen pass or split out, and potentially special teams as a punt returner as he did at times with Oregon.
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