LaMichael James, who yesterday appeared poised to become the 49ers’ No. 2 running back due to Kendall Hunter’s injury, suffered a dislocated elbow in practice today and will miss a month. Suddenly the 49ers, who had one of the deepest and most intriguing running-back groups in the NFL when training camp began Thursday, are thin at the position.
Rookie Carlos Hyde and seldom-used Jewel Hampton are the only healthy runners behind starter Frank Gore. They split nearly all of the repetitions today after James went down early in practice. Another tailback, Marcus Lattimore, began camp on the non-football injury list. On Saturday, general manager Trent Baalke said Lattimore was “close” to joining practice but did not have a time line for his return.
James, a former second-round draft pick, was going against inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite in a blitz pick-up drill when he was blown backward and immediately went to the ground clutching his left arm. He was later carted off the field. James suffered an ankle injury in preseason during his rookie year in 2012 and sprained his MCL (knee) ligament in preseason last year. Both caused him to miss the early part of the regular season and to drop down the depth chart at running back.
He also suffered a dislocated right elbow in 2011 while at Oregon. He missed the next two games before returning and carrying the ball 13 times against Washington State.
Still, if James missed a month with his elbow injury, he would be back before the regular-season opener Sept. 7. Asked about James as a possible replacement for Hunter earlier in the day, Jim Harbaugh said, “we have complete and total confidence in LaMichael James.”
“We know him to be a very fine football player,” he said. “I think if you look at where he was at last year at this time in training camp, he got a MCL injury that kept him out of action for quite a while and affected where he was on the depth chart. And then eventually he got his chance, but he was right in this same mix last year at this time. He’s on familiar ground. He knows the team has always counted on him to be a top football player at the highest level.”
Two days earlier, Hunter suffered an ACL tear when his right knee buckled after a short completion. Hunter remains on the active roster, although the 49ers surely will have to add bodies at running back to get them through training camp and the preseason. Gore had zero carries in the 2013 preseason and it’s unlikely the 49ers want to give the 31-year-old tailback a lot -- or any -- work in the August games.
James also is the team’s top punt returner. Devon Wiley, Perrish Cox and Quinton Patton also have practiced at the spot. Rookie Bruce Ellington likely will get a look at punt returner as well when he fully returns from an ankle injury.
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