After watching from the sideline during the San Francisco 49ers' first 12 games of the season, second-round pick LaMichael James is expected to make his NFL debut Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
James, who left Oregon a year early as the NCAA's active rushing leader with 5,082 yards and 53 touchdowns, has been mum on the topic, but several 49ers players tweeted about James' upcoming debut.
"Happy for my bro @LaMichaelJames finally get to ball on these boys good things come with patience," tweeted rookie safety Trenton Robinson.
When the team lost running back Kendall Hunter for the season with a torn Achilles on Nov. 25, many figured James would be called upon last week, but it didn't happen. Instead, Brandon Jacobs was given four carries and he responded with just six yards rushing. With Hunter sidelined, the 49ers lost their change-of-pace back -- a role that the shifty James is seemingly a better fit for than Jacobs.
General manager Trent Baalke hinted that James' debut was imminent during a radio interview with 95.7 The Game in San Francisco.
"It's safe to say that LaMichael is going to start getting his opportunities and confident that'll he'll make the most of them," Baalke said.
James' value throughout the season has been solely on the scout team, where he's impressed several teammates. The general consensus is that James' talent was obvious, but due to the 49ers' depth at running back, the team was content bring him along slowly. During the preseason he showed he wasn't ready to contribute immediately as a punt returner and had a ways to go in learning some of the nuances of the team's pro-style offense -- particularly in pass protection.
"You have to go out there and give effort, just put your head in there and see what you can do," said James, who is listed at 5-9, 195 pounds. "It's not that hard, but obviously, I'm outmanned because I'm not 230 pounds."
James did not wear Reggie Bush's No. 22 in practice Wednesday, which was unusual considering James had been wearing the number of the opposing team's starting running back for most of the season. Instead, he was wearing his own jersey.
Starting running back Frank Gore carried the ball 23 times against the Rams on Sunday, a season high, and was limited to less than three yards per carry. As the team tries to keep him fresh for the playoffs, it'll be imperative to find production from another running back.
James also presents the ability for the 49ers to run more read-option looks with Colin Kaepernick.
"Me and Kap are really close. He did some of the things I did at Oregon at Nevada," James said. "I think he's an athletic quarterback, obviously when he has the ball, he makes plays. If I get the opportunity to play with him, I think it'd be fun."
The duo showed a lot of read-option plays throughout the preseason with varying levels of success.