Being named Rivals.com 2009 Offensive Freshman of the Year is the end of the first chapter in the story of LaMichael James' career at the University of Oregon. Going into 2009, few knew the type of season the true freshman would have.
Running backs coach Gary Campbell has seen plenty of top talent in his 27 seasons with the Ducks. In James he recognized an untapped potential during his first few practices.
"I had no qualms with the way he ran the ball in the open field or the perimeter," Campbell recalled. "I knew he was going to be able to do all those things. But I challenged him that because of his size, it didn't mean he had to be an outside, slot guy running reverses and screens. That he had the ability if he would do it. I had seen him run well inside a couple of times but it was only when he was forced to do it and got out of his comfort zone. I told him you just have to sometimes put your pads down and run through tackles."
Of course advising somebody to do something and them doing it are two entirely different things. What separates blue-chip athletes from each other is their ability to improve. The freshman running back from Texarkana, Texas is taking the steps to make that happen.
"You tell a lot of guys that and they just say "OK" then don't do it," began Campbell. "Not LaMichael. He's a very coachable guy. I think he found out himself that what I saw in him was really true. Even though he's not big in stature, he's very strong."
Running with power can be easier for bigger backs; it's a matter of physics. Luckily for smaller guys, physics also takes into account leverage and acceleration. Campbell cited to James another nearby player who gets it done with less.
"The thing that makes that guy up the road (Jacquizz Rodgers) good is that he puts his pads down and takes on guys even though he's a smaller guy. I said 'you're bigger than him even though you don't weigh as much, and I think you're as powerful. But you have that breakaway speed so when you break tackles, you will make plays.'"
If his freshman year was any indication, Campbell was exactly right. In his rookie season, James averaged a gaudy 6.72 yards per carry against BCS level competition, finishing ninth in the NCAA and first in the Pac-10 in yards per game. Knowing that LaMichael could make guys miss tackles coming out of high school, Campbell identified breaking tackles as the tool he most needed to add in fall camp.
"That was the biggest thing, being able to break tackles," said Campbell of James' success in 2009. "He's a low runner. He's got his center of gravity low and the big guys grab over him. When he does make contact with the bigger guys he's down in the lower parts of their bodies and they're trying to get down there with him."
With backs who aren't at the bigger end of the spectrum, one concern is always durability. As a freshman, James was a rock, participating in all 13 Oregon contests. Campbell attributes that to a couple things, the first is mental toughness. The other is that James is too agile to be consistently hit square.
"That's another good thing about LaMichael," explained Campbell. "He rarely takes a direct hit. He's so quick that guys have to break down before they tackle him. If guys just take off at him and sell out, he's going to make them look really bad."
For defenders, watching James running downhill at them doesn't always equate to a tackle.
"They see him coming and he makes it tough. He's perpetual movement: always ducking and dodging. That makes it hard because you can't guess which way he's going."
In the span of a short year, LaMichael James has proven a lot of things. He can run with toughness. He is hard to hit. He is durable. But for Gary Campbell as a coach, the sophomore-to-be possesses the one intangible which is most rewarding: he listens.