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The little guy has a knack for slipping by unsuspecting linebackers.
RB LaMichael James—A-
No. 61 overall selection LaMichael James faced a similar uphill climb as his first-round predecessor.
Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter were firmly entrenched as the top-two running backs for the 49ers. Gore was a franchise all-timer, while Hunter quickly established himself as a productive No. 2.
Also filling out the depth chart were Anthony Dixon and free-agent pickup Brandon Jacobs.
Dixon found his niche as a standout special teams player and remained active. Jacobs, for his part, had a role in short-yardage and goal-line situations when healthy (or so we thought at the time).
Taken all together, you quickly see that James faced the challenge of either beating out Dixon and Jacobs or serving as a versatile player on special teams to earn playing time.
As it turns out, James understood that implicitly (via CSN Bay Area).
I'm a competitor. I want to go out and play and compete…But I'm smart enough to know that I still have a lot to learn. This is the NFL. This is a complex offense. There are a lot of things I don't know.
Indeed, the former Oregon Duck—and one of the most prolific running backs in NCAA history we might add—studied the playbook, played on the scout team and learned the art of returning kicks.
In doing, he helped the 49ers prepare for such opponents as the Saints by playing the role of Darren Sproles, a player of similar stature.
(It must have worked since Sproles had just one return for all of three yards).
Hunter then ruptured his Achilles in that game, subsequently opening the door for James. Combine that injury with Jacobs’ Twitter fiasco and James made his debut two weeks later at Miami.
He played 16 offensive snaps, totaling eight carries for 30 yards and one reception for 15 yards. He also showcased his value on special teams by returning three kickoffs for 74 yards, with a long of 34.
What helped facilitate James’ emergence on the field was his fluidity with the zone-read offense from his days at Oregon. Once Kaepernick solidified himself as the starting quarterback, James operated in that capacity behind Gore for the rest of the season.
He collected 125 yards rushing on 27 carries (4.6 average) and 29 through the air by the end of the year. He also generated a 29.8-yard average on 14 kickoffs returns.
Arizona witnessed him amass a season-high 49 yards, including an awesome 26-yarder that harked back to his college years. He deftly weaved through traffic behind a pulling 49er O-line, bouncing off would-be tacklers and knocking defenders on their backs as he gained the first down.
James’ most impactful contributions, though, came against the Patriots in the 49ers' epic 41-34 win. He provided Gore with invaluable time off by tallying eight carries and giving a different look to the New England defense.
Then, just after the Patriots completed their raging comeback with under seven minutes left in the fourth, James produced an MVP-type moment. He returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards down the left sideline. Using his patented speed and elusiveness, James set up the de facto winning touchdown for San Francisco.
The 49ers often won with special teams in 2011. James clearly showed that he could impact the game in such a way.
Overall, James filled the vital role of Gore’s backup when Hunter suffered his season-ending injury. The 49ers absolutely needed a healthy and rested Gore down the stretch before they would begin their playoff run. James did an admirable job of facilitating that.
He ran with youthful vitality, caught passes out of the backfield, limited his mistakes and offered dynamic returns on special teams.
Not too shabby for a guy coming from Oregon’s spread offense and being thrust into a high-pressure role long before he ever anticipated.