- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
EUGENE, Ore. -- In his first two seasons at Oregon, redshirt junior tailback LaMichael James won the 2009 Pac-10 Offensive Freshman of the Year Award and the 2010 Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back. Last season, he traveled to New York as a Heisman finalist.
And if you're a Ducks fan, here's the best part: James is just now growing up.
Not physically, of course. He's still, give or take some well-muscled weight, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound package of quickness he's been since he arrived from Texarkana, Texas. Even in repose -- say, during an interview in April, sitting on a couch in the back of the Len Casanova Center -- James remains a bundle of barely contained energy. He delivers answers from the edge of the couch, punctuating them with drumming fingers on the table in front of him.
But emotionally, James has embraced the responsibilities dumped into his lap. In the season after the greatest season in Oregon history, on a team with only 11 seniors, James will be expected to do more than run the football. The Ducks need him to lead.
"LaMichael's not a real vocal kid," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "He doesn't have to talk every day, but when he says something, people are going to listen to him. That's new for him. He's no longer the young guy. All of a sudden, he's the wily veteran."
James has been leading by example. In two seasons, he has rushed for 3,277 yards, leaving him only 19 yards shy of becoming the Ducks' all-time leader. Since James has averaged 6.3 yards per carry, the record should belong to him before the first $9 draft beer begins to warm at Cowboys Stadium, where Oregon will open the season on Sept. 3 against LSU.
James isn't a guy who speaks in paragraphs when sentences will do. His effort in practice often energizes both sides of the line of scrimmage. He congratulates the Ducks defenders when they pop him and is sure to return the favor on the next snap. But given the Ducks' lack of experience, leading by example no longer is enough.
Kelly doesn't name team captains in the traditional manner. Each position group picks a leader, and those players are the team captains. James and classmate Kenjon Barner are leading the running backs. Kelly sometimes will ask the captains, even the reticent ones, to relay to their position groups how the team will do something.
"If you're not going to say it, who is going to say it?" Kelly asked. "Sometimes, that excuse of 'Well, I'm not a vocal guy' is your excuse of being selfish. To be a leader, you have to serve. You have to be able to get out of your comfort zone. Maybe you don't like talking in front of a group. But that's what this team needs. Are you willing to do that to get us to compete at the level we have to?"
James's maturation sped up last year once he endured the embarrassment of being arrested after an argument with a former girlfriend. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge. Kelly suspended him for the season opener.
"I tell everybody, 'That's the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Ever,'" James said. "I don't think it's a bad thing. I have no regrets about what happened. It just makes you realize a lot of different things. I think it humbles you, makes you more mature, makes you a smarter player in life and in football."
James also has recalled what he and Barner went through two seasons ago. The sudden suspension of senior tailback LeGarrette Blount after he threw a postgame punch at Boise State propelled James and Barner into the lineup before their time.
"We really didn't know what was going on," James said. "We were redshirt freshmen. We were kind of thrown into the fire after the whole LeGarrette thing. We were forced to grow up quick. I remember those games. It was like, man, look in the stands! We'd look in the stands. We'd never played in front of this many people before. The licks are just very different. We didn't understand that. We try to do our best to explain it to the younger running backs."
This spring, James has taken redshirt freshman Lache Seastrunk under his wing. He has tried to explain to Seastrunk the importance of running north and south, even when the defense awaits him.
"Take the loss," James said. "Most of the time he tries to cut back, run around them. At this level, everybody's fast. If they're not fast, they're smart. You can't outrun everybody. Sometimes there are going to be good plays the defense makes. Ball security. That's a big thing, too."
James has a fondness for Seastrunk because they are both Texans. That's the other part of James' maturity. He is no longer the homesick kid yearning to return the 2,225 miles home to Texarkana. He has been at Oregon three years. The adjustment period lasted, he said, "about two."
James laughed. "Really, honestly, maybe around a year," he said. "I know it took a strong 365[-day] year, not just a football year. Even when I was playing, I was just, 'Oh, I want to go back to the South.'"
James found a two-pronged cure for homesickness. For one thing, he taught himself how to fry chicken. Eugene is nowhere for a Southerner to eat. Rather than wait for his mom or sister to visit from Texarkana to eat his favorite food, he bought a deep fryer.
"I try to eat a lot of soul food, a lot of fried food," he said. The nutritionist in the Oregon athletic department just fainted. James fries up some bird several times a week. He is aware that fried chicken isn't exactly tofu.
"I think if I played in a huddle, it would probably be a problem," James said. "Since I'm always running, I get away with it pretty well."
The other part of his homesickness has the traditional cure -- he went home.
"Home isn't home anymore," James said. "Most of the time when I go home now, it's, 'Why am I here?' It's just different. Once you're on your own, your own person, you mature. You have your apartment, your own house, your own car. You have your own life here."
That's just another transition that James has made. The Ducks figure to be the better for it.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
3hDavid M. Hale
1dMark Schlabach and Brett McMurphy
2dMark Schlabach and Sharon Katz