Tight Quarters: LaMichael James

LaMichael James plays in an offense tailored to his strengths, but there are still game situations that reveal he has a fighting chance to do more than catch screens and run draws in the NFL. Photo by Neon Tommy.

LaMichael James is a short, quicksilver running back in an offense that plays at a break-neck tempo. There’s little doubt that he can have an impact as a kick return specialist and a third-down back in the NFL. And if the Broncos don’t land Peyton Manning and continue with some form of spread option offense, James could be a nice fit as an integral part of Denver’s backfield as my Footballguys.com colleague Cecil Lammey suggests.

However, let’s presume that “the future” is not “now” when it comes to offensive concepts and James must work in a traditional, pro-style offense. Does he have what it takes to perform as a between the tackles runner in the NFL? Can he carry the load like Warrick Dunn did for a couple of years with the Atlanta Falcons?  I’m looking at a few plays that provide some indication of what James can – and can’t – do.

Yesterday, I examined James in a short-yardage situation. Today, I’m looking at a play that requires an ability to carry the football in tight quarters. This is an aspect of James’ game where I think he shines.

Disciplined Change of Direction

The is a 2nd and 6 run from a strong side trips, 11-personnel pistol set versus the Stanford 3-4.

This is a zone play where the Oregon line slants right. The NT shifts to his left at the last moment to draw a man-on-man match up.

As James prepares to take the exchange, Stanford’s NT and LDE generate a strong push up field.

Defensive penetration is the death-knell for a big, between-the-tackles back that needs to generate momentum heading down hill. This is a situation where small backs like James can thrive.

The best backs possess a level of size and agility to work in tight spaces. Matt Forte is a great example of a runner who can make defenders miss in the backfield and then get down hill fast enough to generate power to turn a certain loss into positive yards. James may lack the same size and strength of Forte, but the agility is there in abundance. As the DE collapses the LG into the middle of the back field and the NT gets a strong push on the RG, James takes the exchange heading directly into a constricted space.

Most backs at the NFL level can spot the cut back opportunity to James’ left. However, I believe only half of the starters in the NFL are consistently able to make this kind of cutback on a consistent basis. Even if they do, the back side of this play is well-covered.

Although this play only generates a two-yard gain, James demonstrates some nice skill sets between the tackles. His footwork is the most noticeable part of the equation. Notice above the James’ feet are angled towards far hash as he enters this mass of humanity. Within a split-second, James is able to stop and reorient his body and feet down hill and get into a good pad level to begin whatever drive phase he can achieve in this tight space.

James is now prepared to generate positive yardage.

Just like yesterday’s short-yardage play, James must deal with a back side defender coming down the line of scrimmage to attempt a tackle. While there is some credence that the LB in yesterday’s example slowed James due to his size compared to this CB, I also think there’s a lot to say about the difference in pad level James shows on this run compared to the position the LB caught the Oregon RB on that red zone play.

James is able to run through the CB’s wrap thanks in part to his quick feet to change direction in the back field and pad level.

After running through the CB’s wrap, James gets good pad level and keeps his legs moving to generate two yards despite two defenders wrapping him. There’s a similar play with 0:29 in the third quarter where James gains nine yards on 2nd and 10 zone play where James presses to RG and cuts back to the outside shoulder of the LT who collapses the left side of the line to the inside. He doesn’t try to bounce the run outside. Instead he gets his pads down hill, working north south to cross the line of scrimmage. He then bounces off a hit from the safety to fall forward another four yards. Backs with his skill sets often try too hard to generate a huge cut back. There’s some intriguing discipline to what James does on these two plays – even if they aren’t exciting.

James isn’t big, but good technique and second effort can turn negative plays into positive plays.

Returning to this play, the fact James generates this yardage against the wrap of front line players is notable. He’s strong enough to run through a corner’s wrap or the occasional hit of a safety. It’s possessing the technique to break tackles from linebackers and defensive linemen that will be the difference between a situational back in the passing game for draws, screens, and swing passes, and a lead back in a committee who can get the tough yards if necessary.

For more analysis like this at every skill position, purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.  Pre-order the 2012 RSP and buy past RSPs (2006-2011) here.

2 responses to “Tight Quarters: LaMichael James”

  1. Great stuff. He is one of the more intriguing prospects regarding draft position. Guessing some teams think he is too small, some have him ranked too high, and some have him on their radar.

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