The wide receiver room is always a crowded place this time of year. There are 12 wideouts on the San Francisco 49ers current roster. That means Richie James immediately finds himself fighting an uphill battle for a roster spot.
But the Middle Tennessee State product and 49ers seventh-round pick has seen this movie before. He's used to playing the role of underdog. James' career began as a high school quarterback in a Wing-T system. That scheme, by nature, is predominantly run heavy. Most college programs didn't give a second look to the prep quarterback who never threw the football. The two-star recruit didn't get a single offer from a power five conference. However, Middle Tennessee State head coach Rick Stockstill saw an athlete capable of developing into a playmaker.
"He had great ball skills," Stockstill said this week on the 49ers Studios Podcast. "He had great vision. We thought we could develop him as a wide receiver."
Stockstill's faith was well placed. James sat out a year to get accustomed to his new position before posting 107 catches, 1,334 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2015. His encore in 2016 was even more impressive, racking up 103 receptions for 1,625 yards as a redshirt sophomore.
"He's very dynamic. He has great vision and good hands. He can make contested catches. He's not going to overpower you with his strength because he is a small guy."
Injuries plagued James in 2017. An ankle sprain and a broken collarbone limited the Blue Raiders wideout to just five games as a redshirt junior. He opted to declare for the NFL anyways. A combination of his short stature (5-foot-9, 176 pounds), lack of recent game tape and small school pedigree dropped James all the way to the seventh round of the 2018 draft.
Stockstill raved about James' game speed. He ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. That's fast, but it's not fast. The thing that Stockstill reiterated was that James' straight-line speed can be seen on game film. Comparatively, some guys post blazing numbers at the combine, but their speed doesn't show up on tape.
"You'll have guys run a 4.4, but they don't play fast," the coach said. "(James) runs 4.5 all the time. He plays really fast."
And despite standing well under 6-feet, James has arms that measured just longer than 31 inches.
"He has a really good catch radius, which enables him to make some contested catches," Stockstill added. "He's also great running after the catch."
James' skill set could fit in perfectly to the ever-evolving NFL. The pro game resembles college football more than ever. Julio Jones-type physical freaks are becoming harder to find. Seven-step drops and 20-plus-yard passes are also becoming less frequent. Instead, quarterbacks are commonly in the shotgun, getting the ball out quickly and relying on tempo. That's where a guy like James has the chance to thrive.
"The 49ers are getting a competitive, hungry player," Stockstill said. "I think at the end of the day, the 49ers will be pleased with what they picked."