At only 5-8, LaMichael James has the small stature and the rabbit-like quickness of a prototypical third-down running back. But new coach Jim Harbaugh on Friday refused to pigeon-hole him in that role.
After all, Harbaugh has watched James, the 49ers' second-round draft choice, excel at every aspect of the running back position, often from a few aggravating feet away. The former Oregon tailback rushed for more than 1,500 yards in each of the last three seasons, and he always seemed to do particularly well against Harbaugh's Stanford squads, rushing for 382 yards and four touchdowns in 2009 and 2010. He and the Ducks handed Harbaugh his last loss in college football, 52-31, in 2010.
"Just the unstoppable nature of him at the goal line," Harbaugh said when asked if he had particular recollections of the Oregon tailback. "You could not stop that team once they got inside the 5 yard line."
Most goal-line runners are boulder-shouldered bruisers who weigh upwards of 245 pounds. James is 195 pounds, but Harbaugh said he could envision James in a red-zone role - a problem area for the 49ers last year -- and much more.
James became Oregon's featured back as a freshman after starter LeGarrette Blount was suspended for punching an opponent after the 2009 opener. The following year he finished third in Heisman Trophy voting and last year he added punt returns, including one for a touchdown, to his repertoire.
"LaMichael came in and carried the team as a freshman. He did that his whole career," Harbaugh said. He even likened James to brother John's featured tailback in Baltimore, Ray Rice, a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
James is similar in some ways to the team's first-round pick, receiver A.J. Jenkins. Both are fleet-footed and starred in spread offenses in college. They also create crowded positions with their new team. That's precisely what Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke are seeking - players competing for jobs up and down the roster. "It's going to get real real," Harbaugh said. "And it's going to get real real, real fast."
Harbaugh said he thought the 49ers could go into the season with six wide receivers and perhaps six running backs. Four of those runners would be tailbacks. One would be a fullback, Bruce Miller, and the final one would be free-agent addition Rock Cartwright, whose primary role is on special teams.
With James, the 49ers now have five tailbacks. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon and free-agent pickup Brandon Jacobs are the others. Gore will turn 30 next season. "(James) allows you to carry an extra guy because of his versatility," Baalke said.
The 49ers' return man, Ted Ginn, only is signed for one year, and James likely will be groomed to be Ginn's replacement. On a conference call from his home in Texarkana, Texas, James said he was willing to anything the 49ers asked of him, including covering kicks and blocking field goals.
He said he spoke to the 49ers at the scouting combine in February but hadn't heard a peep from them until Harbaugh called Friday afternoon. Said Harbaugh: "We felt like we knew this player. All the background information, people that we've talked to, tape we've watched. His reputation as a person and as a player is very near impeccable."
The 49ers ended the day by trading their third-round pick (No. 92) to the Colts for Indianapolis' fourth-round selection today (97th overall) and a fifth-round choice next year. Baalke noted the 49ers have traded back in the third round in each of the last two years and were able to select linebacker NaVorro Bowman in 2010 and cornerback Chris Culliver last year in the third round.
"We've got to wait a few extra picks into the third day," Baalke said, "but we feel very comfortable that we're going to get an awfully good football player with the pick."
-- Matt Barrows