Earlier this year, the 49ers’ LaMichael James was pining to be traded from a team on which he received scant carries last season and had a glut of running backs.
Saturday, however, James found himself in position to be the team’s No. 2 running back. The player who previously held that distinction, Kendall Hunter, went down with what was diagnosed as an ACL injury 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 ready 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 James said he spoke with him well into Friday night.
“I’ve got to go out there and compete, and when I feel I just can’t give anymore, 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 grew throughout the 2013 season when he carried only 12 times for 59 yards. His only significant playing time on offense since being drafted in the second round in 2012 came as a rookie following Hunter’s Achilles’ injury in November of that year. 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, he didn’t get a lot of opportunities. But that has 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 entering 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 (as) 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 went through his first full-pad practice in the NFL on Saturday, and his coaches and teammates like what they’ve seen from him so far.
General manager Trent Baalke noted Hyde has excellent size at 230 pounds but has the quickness of a smaller man. Miller said he liked Hyde’s direct approach.
“He does what we want running backs in our system to do,” Miller said. “He’s a vertical runner, not much side to side.”
The only other healthy tailback on the roster is Jewel Hampton, who looked good in Saturday’s practice. Another possible challenger, Lattimore, has not yet practiced in training camp as he continues the long process of recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.
Baalke said Lattimore is close to returning to the practice field.
“He’s coming off, as we all know, a horrific injury,” Baalke said. “We want to make sure, as does he, that he’s 100 percent mentally and physically to help this football team. Coming off an injury, there’s really two things you have to address: the physical and the mental. Players know when they’re ready.”