Now that the draft is wrapped up, we get to spend the rest of the summer, and really much of the coming season, learning more about the 49ers various rookies. Part of that learning process comes from chatting with a given SB Nation college blog. They have followed the players for two to four years and seen a lot of what they have to offer.
For today, I've spoken with the folks at our Oregon blog, Addicted to Quack (one of the best blog names out there). They have enjoyed the explosive play-making skills of running back LaMichael James and had plenty to share. The 49ers drafted James in the second round and he could very well make as big a contribution as any of the 49ers 2012 draft picks. Thanks to jtlight and ATQ for providing a rundown on James.
LaMichael James left Oregon the unquestion best back in school history. He set nearly every every major rushing and scoring record at Oregon, and as the only back in conference history with 3 straight years over 1,500 yards, he became the second most productive rusher in Pac-8/10/12 history. While I don't believe he'll have the same level of production in the NFL, I think Niner fans are very lucky to have picked up LaMichael James in the 2012 draft.
LaMichael James achieved his success at Oregon by possessing a great combination of speed, agility, and acceleration. Watching his highlights, it's easy to see this over and over again. When a hole opens up, he has the speed and acceleration to hit it quickly and with power. This gave him not only the ability to get outside the tackles, but a surprising ability to run in between the tackles, despite his small frame. On top of that, he has surprising physical strength. At Oregon during winter conditioning, he led the running backs in squatting 465 pounds. This lower body strength allowed him to gain yards and after contact inside better than many would expect. Obviously, he's no Trent Richardson, but in college he wasn't often brought down by the first man.
James has also matured as a runner considerably during his time at Oregon. In 2009 and 2010 James got by in large part on physical talent alone. Often, he tried to make too much happen, and while this worked out very well at times, there were just as many instances where he would get tackled for a loss. In 2010, he lost over 100 yards being tackled for loss. But in 2011, he got that down to 65. I think a big part of this was maturing and understanding the game of football better. He became more patient, followed his blockers, and this maturity displayed itself in his statistical gains from 2010 to 2011. While many talked about James' loss of speed when he gained weight from the 2010 to 2011 season, I didn't buy this. He still had the same top end speed and acceleration, but he was using these skills more wisely, and with much greater gain for the team. He went from 5.9 ypc to 7.3 from 2010 to 2011, and I credit that to his maturity as a runner.
In other intangibles, James was the leader of the offense in the best two year stretch in school history. He was incredibly hard-working and competed in everything he did. His toughness should not be questioned, as he played through injuries in 2010 to lead Oregon to the BCS title game, and in 2011, re-set his dislocated elbow on the field after being injured. This is a player that will give everything to be the best. He worked hard off the field as well, gaining Academic All Conference honors in 2010. The only strike against the "intangibles" is his 2010 arrest in a domestic dispute with an ex-girlfriend. The confrontation escalated and James and while the initial charges sounded very bad, he eventually plead guilty to physical harassment, a fair result in my mind after reading the police report.
As for how James will fare in the NFL, I think he's landed in a pretty great situation. The Niners have an established running back ahead of him that is a known workhorse, which should allow James to play a more Darren Sproles type role. While this has been mentioned over and over again, I think it's a fair comparison. I do not think that James will be successful in the NFL if he's needed to carry the ball over 20 times a game. He did that for Oregon for 3 years, and even in college, that took a toll. In 2010, he battled through injuries and carried the team (a requirement after Kenjon Barner missed a large chunk of the season due to injury). In 2011, he had more help, but missed time due to a dislocated elbow.
James is tough, skilled, and will play hard, but it would not be in the best interest of the Niners to use him in that manner. James has a ton of physical skills, and will excel in the open field, and even between the tackles if that is not required every play. He will do whatever the coaching staff asks, and I'm sure a smart coach like Jim Harbaugh will be able to get a lot of production out of a skilled back like James.
I and other Oregon fans have been lucky to cheer on LaMichael for 3 years at Oregon. I'm looking forward to him succeeding in San Francisco and the NFL.