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LaMichael James and Running up the Gut

Now that LaMichael James has graduated, he has been able to join the team. We have, as a consequence, been more easily able to keep an eye on the fellow and, well, it's fun to engage in all sorts of prognostication concerning his transition to the NFL. I don't know about you, but for me that entails buying like thirty posters of James and then taping handmade 49ers jerseys fashioned from construction paper over his Oregon jersey. At this point, I'm convinced that he will be great.

For those who seek to evaluate by means of more traditional means, the LaMichael James watch has sort of culminated in the last couple of days - especially considering his recent interview, which can be read courtesy of Grant Cohn.

Fictitiously dappled posters aside, there are some question marks surrounding the man, a la a 1980s Doctor. The primary question in my mind is, perhaps expectedly, the first question James answered in his recent meeting with the press. That is, how he will be used.

What does James think? His answer: "I really don't have any idea. I think the first thing for me is just to get the offense down pat. It's a different language."

Follow me after the jump.

Well ain't that just a load of hullabaloo - though, of course, he can't be blamed. It's not like the team is going to give the information out. If the coaches haven't already been molding James and showing him the areas in which he will be most effective, then they have been truly negligent in their duties. And, if James were to give his all away, he would be negligent too.

That means it is up to us to deduce. So let's get all Holmesian.

In my mind, at least, the biggest question in all this is how well James will adjust to taking a ball up the gut from a three point stance, nonetheless. At Oregon, a large portion of his runs were to the outside and almost everyone started in a shotgun/spread formation. Thus, even when James took one up the middle, it was from an unusual position on the field - at least, unusual in NFL terms. This will all have to change if the 49ers envision James as the type of guy who can run up the middle (more than likely in a post-Frank Gore scenario, and what sad days those will be indeed).

In an attempt to add a piece (maybe even a corner piece!) to our ever growing "LaMichael James PuzzleTM" I watched a video of James highlights a few times over, paying attention to any run that went up the middle or was designed to go up the middle. Being a highlight video, it has obvious deficiencies (James is good all the time and never loses yardage!), but it's a good exercise to see just how he makes such large gains.

To be frank, many of the runs up the middle were the direct result of massive holes opening up. I mean, kudos to James for the vision and ability to cut to the holes. But at times, the defensive line was parted so widely that James could have led an entire slave class out of Egypt through some holes. Big time Red Sea status.

Other times, though, James fought off some initial contact at the line (see particularly plays in the 3:30 to 6:00 range) to either bounce to the outside for yardage gains or to keep going up field. While the former was more frequent, the latter is more promising. Just think of Gore. When he gets into the secondary and wreaks some havoc it is usually in the middle of the field after taking it up the gut like, well, the tank he is. I would like to see James do this a bit more, though this may be his area of greatest weakness due to his size. Gore has an amazing ability to bounce off of defenders and continue. James? Not so much in the video, though I can't pretend to have seen a lot of Oregon football (so, disclaimer, I guess).

Two plays, though, stick out in my mind. Starting at 7:09, Oregon calls a pretty standard play in which most linemen down block, a wing/TE player in two point stance on the left side blocks a safety blitz, and the right guard pulls to the left side and lead blocks. James follows perfectly, getting to the next level quickly. It's a successful run.

The very next play (at about 7:16) is the same thing. This time, though, the down blockers crumble at the line of scrimmage and the first whole at the line of scrimmage never really opens up. As a consequence, James bounces back to the right side of play for a nice first down and another fifteen or so yards.

Really, the fault probably lies with the pulling guard. In his zeal to get to the second level, he sort of shimmies through the line. In the NFL, a professional guard would probably lay a hit on the DL-man before blocking the LB, thus opening up a small hole for the RB. Even though James turned something out of nothing, I think I might have wished that he had just followed his lead blocker. Or, at least, that he will in the NFL. Everything is so much faster in the big league. Bouncing to the outside on a play like this can be effective, but more often than not, it does not work. Following blockers does, though.

I'm not looking for James to be a carbon copy of the every down RB. Not at all. In fact, he may never be anything more than a third down back. This is a role he is well suited to, though I think we would want a bit more from a second round pick. All I am saying is that if he will be more than a third down back then he needs to make some adjustments to his style up the middle. The kid's got talent, and he plays bigger than he is, so I'll go on the record as optimistic.