SANTA CLARA – LaMichael James and Colin Kaepernick have forged similar paths on their way to the Super Bowl.
Both were second-round picks of the 49ers (San Francisco traded up to select Kaepernick with the 4th pick in 2011 and James was taken 30th in 2012). And both took advantage of opportunities created by an injury to a player above them on the depth chart to showcase their skills and prove they were more than just college stars.
When Alex Smith sustained a concussion in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams, Jim Harbaugh gave the ball to Kaepernick and never looked back. With the speed of Kaepernick a new weapon for Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the 49ers started implementing a read-option attack, one that James knew well from his time under Chip Kelly at Oregon.
James didn’t try to downplay the role the option offense has played in his emergence as a valuable weapon for Harbaugh and Roman.
“I think with Colin in the game, it adds a different dimension to the offense,” James said. “It’s something I’m familiar with, just being out there with him and running the spread. Just being in the game is kinda cool for me.”
James still has a newcomer’s enthusiasm because he didn’t even sniff the field until Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins. Just as Kaepernick got his first chance to shine when Smith was unavailable, James saw his first NFL action two weeks after backup running back Kendall Hunter’s season ended due to a torn Achilles tendon.
The start to James’ rookie season included plenty of Sundays on the sideline in street clothes as one of the 49ers’ inactive players. Now no longer an afterthought, James was candid Thursday about how frustrated he was when not part of the gameplan.
“I can’t sit here and tell you it was fun,” James said. “Anytime you’re a competitor, you want to be on the field helping your team win. I had to do it throughout practice. It doesn’t give me an excuse to sit back here and slack off and not try to get better, because you just never know when your number’s going to be called. So I had to work hard in practice and when my time came I was ready to go.”
James didn’t take long to get up to speed, despite the long layoff, as he rushed for 125 yards on 27 carries for a 4.6 yard average over the 49ers’ final four regular season games. James added another 21 yards on three carries in the win over the Packers, but was still searching for the first touchdown of his NFL career heading into Sunday’s game in Atlanta.
With the 49ers trailing the Falcons 17-0 in the second quarter, James finally found pay-dirt. Kaepernick used the read option to freeze a few Falcon defenders and James took advantage of key blocks from Vernon Davis and Ted Ginn to get the 49ers on the board, sparking the largest comeback in NFC Championship Game history.
“I tried to run, the receivers did a great job blocking and Colin made a great read,” said James, who added that he couldn’t even remember the last time he reached the end zone before scoring in Atlanta. (James’ last touchdown came in Oregon’s 45-38 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl more than a year ago.)
“Just putting points on the board to help my team win just made me excited, made me happy,” James said. “I really didn’t think about it too much, I just wanted to win the game.”
For James, scoring his first touchdown in the NFC Championship Game shows how far he’s come since being drafted.
Roman recalled his first impression of James.
“I can still remember the first mini-camp when he showed up coming from Oregon’s offense and just what a difference it was…They might say one word and that means a play. And they don’t have a lot of plays. They only have a handful of plays. We have literally hundreds of plays. So, it was a bit of an adjustment from that standpoint.”
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I first got here,” James said. “I’d never even been in a huddle. So a lot was different. I still had a lot of learning to do and I credit everybody around me, like the coaching staff and some of the players, just everyone being in my corner and supporting me from Day 1.”
James mentioned future Hall of Famer Randy Moss as one of the many mentors he’s found on the 49ers.
“Randy’s my guy. He gives me a lot of life lessons, not just football, but life in general. When he’s on the field he’s a competitor. He’s a savvy player. He knows the ins and outs. I think he keeps everybody motivated.”
Another one of James’ many veteran teammates, safety Donte Whitner, believes the best is still to come for the rookie.
“Once he starts to get more and more comfortable out there on the football field, you’re really going to see a dynamic football player,” Whitner said. “It’s a testament to him to be able to sit on the sideline and be on the developmental squad, as we like to call it, for so long. Knowing that you can play football and coming from a big university and playing a lot of big games and being a big-time player and having to sit out and be humble like that, it’s a testament to him and the character that he has.”
One would expect a superstar college athlete to face some form of hazing when introduced to his new teammates. If being tied to a goalpost is too extreme these days, perhaps a bad haircut or doughnut duty for morning meetings. But James insists there is nothing but warmth emanating from the 49ers’ locker room.
“Everybody respects each other,” James said. “Even though I’m a rookie, nobody ever mistreated me or ever did anything wrong to me. And I think it starts with Coach Harbaugh. He really runs a great program here and everybody just treats each other like family.”