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James waits to play role for 49ers

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - LaMichael James, now with the San Francisco 49ers, took time out last football season to visit the Oregon Ducks on the sidelines as they beat USC.SEATTLE — LaMichael James dressed quietly in a downtrodden visitors’ locker room at CenturyLink Field on Sunday night, pulling on a T-shirt, sweats and Nikes while grabbing his green-and-yellow Duck neck rest for the flight home.

James had played no part in San Francisco’s 29-3 loss to Seattle, watching the action from the sidelines, hands tucked into a gray hooded 49ers’ sweatshirt.

“That’s a good team,” James said of the Seahawks. “They came in and competed. We shot ourselves in the foot with too many mistakes. Anytime you play a good team like that and give them momentum, it’s tough to overcome.”

The former Oregon standout has been inactive in San Francisco’s first two regular-season games after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament of his left knee during the 49ers’ final preseason game at San Diego on Aug. 30.

“I’m getting close,” James said after Sunday’s game. “There’s a strong possibility I’ll play” in San Francisco’s next game, Sunday against Indianapolis.

It had to be hard to watch from the sidelines, I said to James, when your team is getting pummeled as the 49ers did Sunday against their NFC West rivals in a colossal early-season game.

“You want to be out with your teammates playing,” James said with a shrug. “But when you get injured, all you can do is sit out and get yourself ready to play again.”

James’ rookie season in 2012 was a mixed bag. Playing in the Super Bowl was “a big thrill,” he said. But the 5-9, 195-pound second-round draft pick, playing behind tailbacks Frank

Gore and Kendall Hunter, was inactive for the first dozen regular-season games before making his debut against Miami and carrying eight times for 30 yards.

“It was hard,” James said. “I didn’t want to sit out three or four months. I wanted to be out there every snap. But you have to learn the system. I’d never even seen an NFL game (live) until I got here. It was something I had to learn how to do.”

James finished with 125 yards in 27 attempts (4.6-yard average), and had a 62-yard kickoff return that set up the winning touchdown in a 41-34 victory over New England. He then seemed to carve a niche for himself in the playoffs.

The native Texan carried three times for 21 yards in a 45-31 divisional victory over Green Bay. In San Francisco’s 28-24 win over Atlanta in the NFC championship game, James ran five times for 34 yards, including a 15-yard scamper — his first career touchdown — to get the 49ers started after the Falcons had jumped to a 17-0 lead.

In the Super Bowl loss to Baltimore, James gained 10 yards on three attempts. The opportunities for playing time over the final six weeks of the season, though, left him confident about 2013.

“Any time you can get reps in a game, you gain from it,” he said. “One thing you can’t coach is experience. I’ve been on the field, and that will help me out a lot moving forward. More than anything, I learned from Frank and some of the other guys how to be a professional.”

James, who turns 24 next month, entered training camp in July 3 on the depth chart at tailback behind Gore, who rushed for 1,214 yards a year ago with a 4.7-yard average, and Hunter (371, 5.2), who was coming back from Achilles’ tendon surgery. James, rotating with reserves Anthony Dixon and Jewel Hampton in the preseason, gained just 55 yards on 24 carries before getting hurt against the

Chargers.

The 5-9, 215-pound Gore, a starter in San Francisco since his second season in 2006, is in his 10th campaign at 30, an age when running backs normally begin to slow down. The 5-7, 200-pound Hunter, 24 and in his third season, is much like James, shifty and speedy as opposed to Gore’s punishing style of attack.

The 6-1, 235-pound Dixon, 25 and in his fourth season with the 49ers, also is in the mix as a tailback along the lines of Gore.

Word is that coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and running backs coach Tom Rathman see James as a situational back and kickoff return specialist with potential, but question whether he has the size or durability to carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game.

“I can do everything,” James said. “If I didn’t think I could do everything, then I shouldn’t be here.”

Does James regard himself as the heir apparent to Gore?

“Me, Kendall, whoever else is here,” he said. “We can share the load. I don’t think it’s one guy, the NFL season being so long. We can all help each other out.”

James would like to stay with the 49ers.

“It’s a good organization,” he said. “A really good team, really good coaches. Everybody goes out and competes week in and week out. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Mention of the Ducks’ 3-0 start and No. 2 national ranking brought a smile to James’ face.

“My favorite team out there,” he said. “I talk to those guys all the time. I’m sure they’re texting me right now.”

Offering their condolences about the Seattle game, perhaps. And wishes for health and opportunities to play in the weeks ahead.

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