San Francisco boasts the NFL’s No. 2 rushing attack, a mauling run-first system that averages 162.1 yards per game.
The 49ers also lead the league with 66 carries of 10 or more yards and rank tied for second with 14 carries of 20 or more yards.
Second-round draft pick
Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke both hinted on local radio at the possibility of James earning playing time in December. Without the services of backup
On Tuesday, James said he hasn’t been directly informed of a potential role as one of the team’s 46 active players on gameday, but he’s optimistic about his chances coming soon.
“I’m here for a reason, I can play. I’ve always felt like that,” said James, who rushed 13 times for 63 yards in the preseason (4.8 yards per carry). “Whatever the team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m young, I’m still learning. Whatever it takes me, that’s what I’m going to do to get on the field.”
James has taken on a variety of roles behind the scenes for the 49ers.
The young runner has played as a return man, a running back and wide receiver for San Francisco’s weekly scout teams.
“I pretty much do everything,” the 5-foot-9, 195-pound back explained. “I play a lot of different positions on the scout team. I’m at receiver, I’m at running back, whatever the teams needs me to do I feel like I’m always going to do it.”
James admitted his 12-game inactive streak to start his professional career has been tough at times, but it hasn’t affected his work-first mentality.
“I feel like I can go out there and help the team, obviously I prep for it each and every week,” James said.
“Hopefully I can provide a spark.”
The 49ers have gone 8-0 this season when out-rushing opponents not named the St. Louis Rams. The team, however, went 0-1-1 against their NFC West rivals this season, despite out-rushing the Rams on the ground in both contests.
In last week’s overtime loss, San Francisco out-gained St. Louis 148-85 on the ground and still was defeated.
James is hopeful he can take some of the burden off
“I try to look at the holes and see what Frank does,” James explained. “I try to imitate him in practice. He’s been successful so I try to read (defenses) a lot better; obviously I was coming from the spread and not I-formations. A lot of things are different so I’m trying to learn on the go.”
Learning on the move is one thing, but when you’re a 4.3-second, 40-yard dash talent, James’ on-field ability is hard to ignore.
Gore sees strides being made in all areas from the young back.
“I’ve seen that he’s gotten a lot better from when he first got here until now,” Gore said. “I see a lot of improvement.”
In particular, Gore likes how James has adapted to the pro game in a short time.
“Running in small spaces,” Gore noted, “he’s gotten better in small spaces. You watch his film in college, there are a lot of big spaces and the NFL is different. Early on he had a tough time with that, but now from when I first saw him he’s got a lot better.”
In addition to running out of pro-style formations, James has improved as a pass protector, a necessary component to being an every-down back in the professional ranks.
It wasn’t until training camp practices with the 49ers that the young running back was able to learn the blitz pickup techniques instructed by running backs coach Tom Rathman. James really didn’t do much of it in college, but revealed that he’s made steady improvements in that area of his game.
“You have to give effort, put your head in there and see what you can do,” he said. “Obviously I’m out-manned because I’m not 230 pounds, but I feel like I can get the job done and that I’m scrappy enough.”
James has been tough-minded throughout his rookie campaign, one that saw him miss most of the team’s offseason workouts due to his late college graduation date.
Even so, James’ NFL career is still waiting to get off the ground.
Fortunately for the young back, learning behind arguably one of the toughest inside runners in league history is only a plus.
Gore’s understanding of power football should only translate to his speedster understudy.
“When you get the ball, it ain’t how fast you run through the hole, it’s about being patient,” Gore shared. “When he used to get the ball, he used to try and just use his speed. I told him he’s got to let things develop and be patient. Then when you see it, that’s when you can be fast through the hole.”
If Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins turns out to be James’ biggest hole to date, expect the running back to burst right through it.