Oregon running back
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had a sideline view for a lot of that production, especially in 2010 when James carried the ball 31 times for 257 yards and three touchdowns in Harbaugh’s final defeat as a collegiate head coach.
“I have a memory like an elephant,” Harbaugh said with a grin. “I never forget.”
In any year it’s hard to look past James. This past season he was chosen as a first-team All-Pac 12 running back. James led the nation with 150.4 yards per game and ranked second nationally with his 1,805 rushing yards. However, James saved some of his best games against Stanford teams coached by Harbaugh.
The NFL’s Coach of the Year recalls how tough it was to tackle James by the goal line.
“Just the unstoppable nature of him at the goal line,” Harbaugh recalled. “You could not stop that team once they got inside the 5-yard line.”
At 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, the 2010 Doak Walker Award winner was being questioned for his size as he entered the 2012 NFL Draft. But after 60 picks went off the board, the 49ers selected James with their second-round pick (No. 61 overall), adding the first two-time consensus All-American in Oregon school history.
“He’s proven he’s a multi-down back in our eyes,” Harbaugh added.
Now, James looks to bring his do-it-all ability out of the backfield to a 49ers team looking to defend its NFC West division crown.
“I just talked to them when I was at the combine, but other than that it was pretty much nothing else,” said the running back with 5,082 all-purpose for his collegiate career. “I get a phone call from Coach Harbaugh and it was just unbelievable.”
It makes sense Harbaugh would want the Oregon running back on his side.
In two games against Harbaugh-coached Stanford teams, James rushed 49 times for 382 yards and four touchdowns.
“He’s so intense,” James said of his former competitor, turned coach. “He seems so much about effort; a hardcore coach. Even after we stopped playing him, I was like, ‘I would love to play for a coach like that.’ How intense he is and how physical he wanted his team to be because I always want to be physical and go downhill.”
James liked matching wills with the Stanford program on a yearly basis.
“I always enjoyed playing against Stanford because I knew they were going to give it their all and be aggressive,” James said. “Now I’m playing for their coach and it’s unbelievable for me. I’m really excited.”
Perhaps the 49 carries against Harbaugh were a sign James was destined to play professionally in San Francisco.
“I just want to go in there and compete,” James said. “Those guys are great running backs and I’m sure I can learn a lot of things from those guys. Just pick up some of those things from those guys and try to be the best I can be and help the team win.”
The 49ers will allow James, like all of their players, to compete for a respective role on the team.
“We never limit their roles,” general manager Trent Baalke said.
San Francisco certainly won’t do that with one of the nation’s most lethal running backs.
“He’s a play-maker,” Baalke said. “He’s done it against the best in college football."
James has plenty of experience on the big stage.
In 2009, James rushed 15 times for 70 yards in a Rose Bowl defeat to Ohio State. The following season, James and the Ducks came up short in the BCS Championship Game, yet the running back was a Heisman Trophy Finalist and the Doak Walker Award winner for his 1,731 rushing yards and career-high 21 touchdown runs that season.
“I look back at the situation at Oregon it prepped me for a lot of different things,” James said. “Playing in big ball games and being the best player I can be. It really helped me out as far as life lessons and just making all the right decisions as far as life and football, too. So, I’m really stoked about the situation and the pick and how they picked me. So, I’m just happy about it.”
This past season, James was one of three finalists for the Walker Award due to his career-high 1,805 rushing yards.
James will be counted on to rush the football in San Francisco, but in his mind, the young runner is open to doing whatever is needed for his new team.
“I plan to do everything,” James said. “Return balls, run down on kickoffs, whatever the team needs me to do that’s what I’m going to do.”
Harbaugh said James has the ability to become a punt and kick returner in his early years and will get an opportunity to work behind
With a 4.37-second, 40-yard dash time and one of the most impressive resumes under his belt, James was expected to be one of the top picks at his position. As it turned out, the Oregon running back was the fifth running back taken and second back selected in the second round.
James had no expectations of where he’d be selected, but he’s happy it’s over.
"I had no idea, second round or third round," James said. "It just came up and they picked me. It’s just a dream come true for me to even have my name called. It didn’t really matter too much.”
Running back will be James’ biggest focus early on. But the versatile runner believes he can do a lot out of the backfield.
“Whatever they need me to do,” James said. “I feel like I have a variety of skill sets. Returning ability, I can run in between the tackles, I can catch the ball, I can do pretty much everything they ask me to do.”
James already has a great deal of respect for his new backfield mates. The Texarkana native knows Hunter from their days playing high school football in the Lonestar state. James also has respect for the veterans on the roster like Jacobs and Gore. He called Gore, “an awesome running back.”
“If I have to sit behind him and learn,” James said, “it’s just a good opportunity for me to get better.”
James had no indication the 49ers would draft him, but he was pleased it happened.
“I’m going to be an all-around athlete and stoked about the opportunity. I love watching the 49ers play and can’t wait to get in that stadium and play.”
The 49ers traded their third-round pick (92nd overall) to the Indianapolis Colts for their fourth-round pick (97th overall) and a fifth-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
“We got a good offer,” Baalke said, before explaining there are several draftable players on the board when the team makes the second pick of the fourth round.
The 49ers are slated to have nine selections in next year’s draft. Last training camp, the team also acquired a seventh-round selection from the Cincinnati Bengals in exchange for safety Taylor Mays.