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LaMichael James Is a Star in the Making for the 49ers, and Here's Why

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LaMichael James Is a Star in the Making for the 49ers, and Here's Why
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Coming out of high school, LaMichael James was a simple 3-star recruit who was the 40th-ranked running back in his class. Many collegiate programs looked at his size and said, "Oh he's too small to withstand the weekly punishment of a full-time back."

They may have been somewhat right considering he was only 5'9'' and 185 pounds as a graduating senior from Liberty-Eylau High School in Texarkana, Texas. Yet according to Scout.com, as a senior he led his team to a Texas 3A state title and rushed for 2,043 yards. Furthermore, he scored 26 all-purpose touchdowns on his way to an all-state selection.

Despite his size deficiencies, James obviously let his on-field play do the talking. TCU, Nebraska, Mississippi State, Minnesota, Houston, Baylor and Oregon all showed immense interest in the southern speedster. 

When he narrowed down his collegiate choices, he decided to visit the top five and go from there. His first visit was made to TCU, his second to Minnesota, his third to Nebraska and his fourth to Oregon. We can't forget his final visit, which ended up being Mississippi State, even though it was more of a courtesy visit than anything.

After James left Oregon on January 1, 2008 he was sold.

Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense is predicated and built on speed. And speed was seemingly James' No. 1 asset out of the backfield. At 18 years old, he ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and had a vertical jump of 36 inches. That's not too shabby considering some collegiate players don't put up those type of numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine.

As a true freshman, it was unknown if he would have the ability to showcase his skills due to the fact the Ducks already had a star-studded back in LeGarrette Blount. In 2008, Blount had eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark as a junior on just 137 carries, so everyone expected him to build on his impressive season.

However, Blount only lasted one contest in the 2009 season. After the first game of the season against Boise State, he lost his cool and started a fight after being taunted by the opposition. The infamous "punch" cost him 10 games and a spot as a heralded draft pick in 2010.

Fortunately for James, the infamous "punch" allowed him to step in the starting lineup and instantly thrive. His first start came in the second week of the season against Purdue, but his breakout party wasn't until Week 3 against Utah.

He carried the ball 27 times for 152 yards against the Utes. He added one rushing touchdown and one reception. Over the course of the next 10 games he eclipsed the century mark eight times and garnered four multi-touchdown games.

By season's end, he averaged 9.9 yards per carry and was named Pac-10 freshman of the year. Performances against powerhouses like USC helped James snag the prestigious award—not to mention it helped lead Oregon to a Pac-10 championship. 

LaMichael James' freshman season via Sports-Reference.com
After such a dynamic freshman campaign, James was in trouble in 2010.

According to Rachel Bachman of the Oregonian, the second-year tailback pled guilty to physically harassing his girlfriend on February 15, 2010. He received 24 months probation and was forced to sit out the first game of the season by Coach Kelly.

Nevertheless, him missing the first game of the season didn't throw off the 2010 season too much. He went on to collect an even more prestigious accolade by being named a consensus All-American. Moreover, James broke the Pac-10 sophomore single-season rushing record. 

His sophomore season still stands as the 10th-best single-season performance in conference history.

Unfortunately, the Ducks failed to make history as James did. Their perfect 12-0 regular season came to a screeching halt when they ran into Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers in the BCS National Championship Game.

With two phenomenal seasons in the books, many felt James' next step was naturally to head to the NFL. If you think back and look at a list of his accomplishments, it would be hard to argue with the sentiment that he had very little left to achieve.

He finished third in the Heisman voting in 2010, so it was easy to see why he wanted to come back. The Heisman Trophy is the highest recognition of achievement in all of college football, making the award incredibly tempting.

Plus, another run at a national championship in 2011 had to be equally tempting.

The 2011 season brought about more personal records that fell at record paces. James averaged a mind-blowing 12.4 yards per carry while amassing 1,805 yards rushing, which helped make him Oregon's all-time leading rusher.

His additional junior season records included a 288-yard game against Arizona. He also went on to lead the Pac-12 in rushing yards. His 5,082 career rushing yards allowed him to finish as the sixth-best running back in NCAA history since 2000.

Below is a list of the top 10 all-time rushers since Sports Reference kept track of collegiate stats.

List provided by Sports-Reference.com
Yet the best season of his college career didn't help the Ducks punch their ticket to a second straight national championship game. A season-opening loss to LSU put them at a slight disadvantage, and losing the 11th game of the season to USC took them out of contention altogether.

With two losses, a Rose Bowl appearance would have to do. In wild fashion, James and company pulled out a 45-38 victory over Russell Wilson and the Wisconsin Badgers. Shortly after savoring the victory, he declared for the NFL draft.

James told USA Today that, "I feel like I'm leaving with a bang." At the same news conference he mentioned that he would likely be a third-round pick based on the grade given to him by the draft committee. 

Lo and behold, the draft committee was close, but he looked too good to pass up at the end of the second round. San Francisco knew it wouldn't have the chance to snag him at the end of the third round, so it decided it was best to play it safe and take him when it had the chance.

An already crowded 49ers backfield was now even more crowded. When the season began, the Niners had Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, James and Anthony Dixon all listed on their depth chart. Some teams have a hard time finding one good running back, let alone four.

The deep body count in the backfield kept the rookie sidelined until Week 14. The depth was running thin after Hunter was lost for the season with a torn Achilles and Jacobs was suspended for basically being a nuisance to Jim Harbaugh and the organization. 

During Weeks 14, 15, 16 and 17 James averaged about 14 snaps per game. Furthermore, he averaged almost eight touches a game over the course of the final four games of the season. So, it's safe to say when he's in the game, the ball is going to him.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Still, the playoffs haven't been as predictable. He logged 23 snaps against the Packers in the divisional -round game, but only nine snaps in the NFC Championship Game. Yet those nine snaps were arguably the nine best snaps of his young NFL career.

His second-quarter touchdown against Atlanta sparked the 49ers' comeback, which in turn propelled San Francisco's quest for its sixth Super Bowl. Heading into the Super Bowl, James has rushed for 180 yards on 35 carries. His lone touchdown in Atlanta has been his only score of the season, but I guarantee that changes come Sunday.

Another guarantee I can easily make is that James will be a star in this league and will be the face of the 49ers' backfield for years to come. It's rather easy to see based on two things: No. 1, he's successful and No. 2, he has always been a winner.

Dating back to high school, James has never been a part of a losing team. He doesn't know what it's like to lose, plain and simple. He also doesn't know what it's like to have a bad season. The phrase "bad season" doesn't fit when talking about him.

People tend to over-complicate things when evaluating players, but there is nothing to over-complicate as James is one of fastest, most agile players I've ever seen. This clip pretty much sums up why LaMichael James is a star in the making:

Just trust me on this one...

 

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