Earlier this year LaMichael James was eager to be traded from a team on which he received scant carries last season and on which there was a glut of running backs.
Now James finds himself as perhaps the team's No. 2 option only three days into training camp. The player who previously held that distinction, Kendall Hunter, went down with an ACL injury on Friday and likely will have to sit out the season. Another challenger, Marcus Lattimore, has had a staggered start this offseason and is still not healthy enough to join practices.
That leaves James as the most experienced runner on the team behind starter Frank Gore.
James on Saturday said he would compete in Hunter’s honor. Hunter is one of his best friends on the team and someone he said he spoke with well into Friday night. “I've got to go out there and compete, and when I feel I just can't give any more I've got to give a little extra for him, too,” James said. “... I know everybody's looking at me now. I'm just going to go out there and work hard.”
James' frustrations began during the 2013 season when he carried the ball only 12 times for 59 yards. His only significant carries since being drafted in the second round in 2012 came as a rookie following Hunter’s Achilles' injury. James averaged 4.6 yards per carry in the four regular-season contests after Hunter went down and 5.9 yards a carry in the playoffs and Super Bowl.
“Two years ago ... he got a lot of work going through the playoffs and the Super Bowl,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of James. “And he was pretty effective. And the way things played out last year, didn’t get a lot of opportunities. But that as no impact. Don’t take anything from that. That was really circumstance more than anything.”
James said he has a better grasp of the offense going into his third season, and he's perhaps better equipped physically to function in the 49ers' power-based rushing attack. He weighed about 190 pounds as a rookie. He's up to 208 now and is noticeably bigger in the thighs and upper body.
“He looks a little bigger but he's still fast as lightning,” fullback Bruce Miller said of James.
The other player who will be scrutinized as Gore's possible top backup is second-round pick Carlos Hyde. He'll go through his first full-pad practice in the NFL this afternoon, and his coaches and teammates are eager to see how he handles it.
"It’s sad to see Kendall go down,” Hyde said. “That was another guy that I was looking up to, watching him at practice, watching how carried himself at practice, how he executed at practice. But I’m going to keep doing what coach asked me to do: come to practice every day and give it my best."
At 230 pounds, Hyde is the biggest tailback on the 49ers' roster. But Miller said he hits the line of scrimmage like Hunter – quickly and with a full head of steam. The only other healthy tailback on the roster is Jewel Hampton. Another possible challenger, Lattimore, has not yet practiced in training camp as he continues the long process of recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.
"We'll have to wait and see,” Roman said when asked about Lattimore's availability. “Really it's more of a day-to-day situation."