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James Prepared to Return Punts

Posted Aug 4, 2013

Jim Harbaugh remarked on James’ improvement as a vertical runner and pass protector on offense as well as his heightened skills on special teams.

LaMichael James was literally blitzed a year ago. The then-rookie running back missed out on 49ers minicamps due to his late graduation date, which shortened his time to improve on finding running lanes and contributing in pass protection, let alone returning punts.

“I didn’t really have an idea of what was going on,” said James, remarking on his first weeks in San Francisco last year, after Sunday morning’s practice.

Now acclimated – his word, not ours – and enduring his second training camp, James appears to be the top contender for San Francisco’s punt returner post. His climb to this spot came with hard work, very often 20 to 30 minutes of catching balls spit out a machine. Special teams coaches Brad Seely and Tracy Smith were at his side.

“I felt like I did it every single day,” James said.

[ PHOTOS - TRAINING CAMP: AUG. 3 ]

In one particular post-practice exercise during his rookie campaign, James was instructed to run circles around Seely, facing the 49ers’ assistant head coach until told to find the already-punted, descending football.

“If you can do that drill, you can catch it because you’re not actually seeing the punt come off the foot,” James said. “As a punt returner, it’s important to see the punt come off the foot. When [Seely] is holding you that long, you have to find it in the air and adjust to it.”

Adjust is the operative word. James, who acknowledged his difficulty fielding punts during the 2012 preseason thanks, in no small part, to the whirling winds at Candlestick Park, still led the team with a 29.8 yard average on 14 kick returns.

With able receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams on the roster last year, James didn’t return a punt in game action. (Ginn, a free agent this offseason is now with the Carolina Panthers, and Williams returned to practice Sunday after recovering from a hamstring strain.) James did have collegiate experience in the role, returning 37 punts in his three seasons for the Ducks, including one for a touchdown during his junior season in 2011.

Friday’s practice, irregularly-timed for 5 p.m. in Santa Clara, gave James the opportunity to field wobbly balls in conditions reminiscent of Candlestick. “It was really good practice for me,” he said of the session.

[ RELATED: 49ERS RELEASE EARLY DEPTH CHART ]

When the 49ers released an unofficial depth chart on Friday, James, who added 10 pounds of muscle over the summer, was also listed as the No. 2 running back.

Jim Harbaugh remarked on James’ improvement as a vertical runner and pass protector on offense as well as his heightened skills on special teams, calling the 5-foot-9-inch speedster a “trusted agent” the punt and kickoff units. The coach also said he would expect James to get the first crack on punts come Thursday night, when the 49ers open preseason play against the Denver Broncos.

Does James expect and relish the opportunity to be the top punt returner?

“Most definitely,” he said.

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