Injured for three games, playing sparingly in two more and inactive for three others, James has had quite the tumultuous sophomore season in 2013.
James began the year gracing the sidelines in casual 49ers street ware. An MCL strain in his left knee precluded any possibility of sporting the more illustrious red-and-gold apparel.
Once James was healthy, the coaching staff afforded him only mop-up duty against the already-thrashed St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans. One could question why James hadn’t received more playing time, seeing as the 49ers were in need of an offensive spark following two sound defeats and a 1-2 start.
Yet, returning to their fundamental, ground-and-pound approach with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter seemed apt as well. Getting back to the roots of what a team does best works out more often than not.
But that only accounts for San Francisco’s first five games of 2013. Where has James been relegated to since then?
The electric Oregon Duck product and his seven carries for 31 yards have been submerged in a running-back depth chart that includes Gore, Hunter and, most surprisingly, Anthony Dixon.
Dixon’s all-around value on special teams has elevated him above James for the time being. A positive-1.7 rating for his work in coverage, which ranks fourth-highest on the team, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), lends credence to that assertion.
Dixon also produced two short-yardage touchdowns in the same two games that James was active.
All that being said, James can—and will—materialize as the 49ers’ best secret offensive weapon as the season moves forward.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is widely lauded as a highly sophisticated football brain. Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted as much in analysis of San Francisco's Week 8 drubbing of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In making “all the right moves,” Roman had the Jacksonville Jaguars “completely unprepared for the 49ers’ multi-formations and personnel groups,” commented Lynch, via SFGate.com. Five touchdowns via misdirection plays resulted from San Francisco’s prolific formations on offense.
James, for his part, should fit seamlessly into that dynamic, creative approach.
James possesses all-world speed and game-breaking elusiveness both as a runner and a receiver. Top-three career marks in the Pac-10/Pac-12 of 5,668 yards and 57 touchdowns from scrimmage—in just three collegiate seasons, mind you—is proof enough.
A 40 time of 4.35 according to NFL Draft Scout doesn’t hurt either.
Roman will find a way to utilize that talent when it matters most.
The coordinator’s creative mind will produce game plans that feature James out of the backfield in Pistol and read-option sets, as well as a receiver from the slot and out wide. James will utilize his shifty, scatback qualities in space and thereby exploit mismatches against opposing defenses.
Shifting formations with James, Gore, Hunter and/or fullback Bruce Miller behind and alongside quarterback Colin Kaepernick will create pre- and post-snap havoc for the opposition. Add in versatile tight ends Vernon Davis and rookie Vance McDonald to these schemes and James suddenly becomes an X-factor on offense.
Will he take a pitch to the outside or hide behind his massive offensive linemen on a handoff up the middle? Will he run the wheel route or dart his way downfield for a big pass play? Is James a decoy or a bona fide target?
These are just some of the questions that defensive coordinators must address in their game-planning against James and the 49ers offense.
Make no mistake: Gore and Hunter are still the two firmly entrenched backs in this system.
But also don’t take the majority of touches going to these veterans to mean that James is an outlier on this team.
Critical upcoming matchups against two first-place NFC teams, the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, will in all likelihood decide the fate of the 49ers in the conference standings. James should be an integral weapon to beating both of those clubs.
In the words of head coach Jim Harbaugh, courtesy of SFGate.com's John Shea: “[We’d like to] get LaMichael in the mix. We want to get that going. He’s too good of a player not to be playing.”
Due to a 49ers bye in Week 9, the viewing world must wait awhile to see if Harbaugh’s thought-provoking words translate into dynamic action from James on the gridiron.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16