49ers RB James could debut today against Rams

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5C
Last Modified: Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 - 6:21 am

ST. LOUIS – Always mum on strategy and roster maneuvers, coach Jim Harbaugh refused to say how the 49ers will compensate for the absence of Kendall Hunter, their second-leading rusher who was lost for the season a week ago.

But Harbaugh's counterpart in St. Louis had a good guess.

"Well, they've got a high draft pick that's really talented that we thought an awful lot of and that hasn't been active this year," Jeff Fisher said. "So I imagine they'll probably have him up and give him an opportunity to do some things."

That high draft pick carried the ball 771 times for 5,082 yards over the last three years at Oregon, where he was one of the most creative and prolific runners in the nation.

Over the last 11 games, however, LaMichael James' stat line has flatlined.

He has zero rushes for zero yards because, despite being healthy, he's been inactive each week.

James' debut today against the Rams would make sense. He's similar to Hunter in size – Hunter is 5-7, 199 pounds, James is 5-8, 195 – and can provide the same change of pace to Frank Gore's straight-ahead style.

The 49ers' second-round pick also makes a nice pairing with starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The two struck a friendship when James arrived in the spring. Both played in wide-open offenses in college, and when James needed a place to stay, Kaepernick offered the spare bedroom of his Santa Clara apartment.

They clicked on the field, too.

In the first exhibition game, Kaepernick faked a handoff to James on a read-option play, held onto the ball and outran the Minnesota Vikings' defense for a 78-yard touchdown.

"Me and Kap are really close," James said. "I did some of the things at Oregon that he did at Nevada. He's an athletic quarterback. Obviously, when he has the ball, he makes plays. So if I get the opportunity to play with him, I think it would be fun."

Harbaugh, however, has other options.

Like James, Brandon Jacobs was a prominent offseason acquisition who has been waiting patiently – and at times impatiently – for his chance. Jacobs was in uniform last week for only the second time this season and had his first carry – for one yard – in the fourth quarter.

There are two other tailbacks on the 53-man roster, special-teams player Anthony Dixon and rookie Jewel Hampton, who was moved to the active roster last week.

None has had an offensive impact this season because the one-two combination of Gore and Hunter has been so effective. Both average 5.2 yards a carry, and the 49ers lead the league in rushing.

Despite averaging the fewest carries since he became the starting running back, the 29-year-old Gore is on pace to have his best season since 2006, when he set the franchise season rushing record of 1,695 yards.

Hunter, who went down with an Achilles tendon tear last week, has been effective at knifing between the tackles and darting around the outside. James has that kind of speed, too, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds in the run-up to the draft.

So far, James' role for the 49ers has been to mimic the opposition's shiftiest players – running backs and wide receivers – in practice. He mimicked the New Orleans Saints' Darren Sproles last week. In Week 1, he was Green Bay wide receiver Randall Cobb.

"He's been a wide receiver a lot of times in practice and running back coming out of the backfield," Harbaugh said before the Saints game. "His hands have improved so much; (so has) his route-running ability. I think it was quite a good look for our defense this week with La-Michael."

Still, Harbaugh offered no clues about today's running back rotation, saying only it would be split "among the other backs."

James said he didn't know how the carries will be divided. When will he find out?

"(Today)?" he said with a shrug. "Maybe?"

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