The 49ers made another surprise pick in the second round, selecting ultra-productive and rabbit-quick running back LaMichael James from Oregon. James, who also can return punts, rushed for more than 1,500 yards in each of the last three seasons. He also played particularly well against Jim Harbaugh-led Stanford teams, rushing 49 times for 382 yards and four touchdowns in 2009 and 2010.
"We played against coach Harbaugh a couple of times," James said. "He's so intense. He seems so 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."
The pick might be considered surprising because James is a smaller running back - 5-8, 190 pounds - and the 49ers took a small 'back last year in Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter. James, who watching the draft at home in Texarcana, Texas said he was familiar with Hunter, the 49ers' fourth-round pick last year, because he, too, is from East Texas. But he didn't want to be typecast as having the same skills as Hunter, who mostly was used as a change-of-pace running back last year.
"I think I can be similar to anybody," he said.
In addition to Hunter, James joins a backfield that also includes veterans Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon and Brandon Jacobs.
James had no idea the 49ers were interested in him. He did not make a trip to Santa Clara - he visited Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay - and only remembers talking to the 49ers at the combine. In fact, he didn't know who running backs coach Tom Rathman was when Rathman got on the phone with him. (Harbaugh made the initial call).
We will talk to Harbaugh and Baalke after the team picks in the third round and ask about James' role. One possibility is that the team sees Hunter as a future replacement for Gore, who turns 30 next year, and envisions James as a change-of-pace runner. Or vice versa.
Also, the team's primary punt returner, Ted Ginn, only is signed for one year and the 49ers had problems when Ginn was injured in the NFC Championship. James returned 15 punts last season for 139 yards (9.3-yard average) and a touchdown.
James said he is ready for any role the 49ers throw at him. He said he'd return kicks and punts, cover kickoffs and even block field goals if that's what his coaches desire. How many field goals has the sub-six footer blocked in his career?
"I haven't blocked any ... yet," James said.
-- Matt Barrows