Out he strode confidently into the press conference, smiling and joking with reporters only a few hours after it looked his season--Oregon's season--were in grave peril. And in a matter of minutes he seemed to downplay it all.
Dislocated shoulder? No problem. Played with it before. Come back from it within a week before. I'll be back.
LaMichael is really a special player, and it's incredible that his emergence came about so quickly. Who knows if James develops as quickly into the player he is if Bryon Hout couldn't keep his mouth shut gabbing at LeGarrette Blount.
Almost instantly he fit right into what Chip Kelly would do on offense. He hit the open hole with strength and power, then turned loose the speed. He has a compact frame that allows him to keep the legs moving even on first contact, driving forward for extra yards even when he has defenders after dropping. You can't just grapple with him high and expect to take him down. You have to wrap him up at the hips and force him down. Only on a few occasions has a defense bottled him up. Everyone else has been scrapping for answers.
But what really turns LaMichael into the most dynamic player in college football are the big plays. He's able to generate those huge plays that turn Chip Kelly's offense into a machine. He isn't elite fast, but he's so adept at knowing when to speed up to that next level when he gets past the first line of defense. He's so deceptive with how fast he can go, he goads second line defenders into taking poor pursuit angles, and they end up whiffing or not being able to wrap up. He turns outside runs into 50-60 yard scampers with absolute regularity.
On two of his first rushing plays in the first half, Big Play James amassed 100 early yards. The first rush became a big success when the Cal outside linebacker tried to engage James too early; LaMichael simply blew past the contain and the out-of-position safety help. The second came behind excellent blocking that sealed off the outside, and James simply took his alley and ran with it. What really struck me the most is how quickly James changes pace from east-west to north-south on a football field. James is moving so leisurely when he goes to the sideline, and then he turns the corner and that second level boost carries him to the end zone. James has 68 rushing plays of 10 yards or more the last two seasons and 26 rushing plays of 20 yards or more (already 11 this season, tops in the country).
His big plays have been crucial, because sometimes the team around him can sputter even when he's performing exceptionally. His offensive line can get manhandled, like in that first half against Cal or the entire game against LSU. His quarterbacks can be erratic, like Darron Thomas tends to be.
But once they begin to settle down and execute their gameplan, everything starts clicking, and James can go back to grinding on the inside runs. Three, four yard runs that batter and bruise and wear out a defense. LaMichael had a couple of those on the opening second half drive against Cal, including two third down conversions that looked they would be stuffed on first contact. But James is the Little Engine after he gets over the hill. He knows he can get it.
Big Play James we should call him. Whether it be three yard or thirty yard carries, James seems to always have the ball and always seems to be making the play when Oregon needs him to make it the most. Every college football team would love to have a player like that.
How Oregon deals with a sidelined LaMichael is a reality Chip Kelly could have to deal with in due time. Kenjon Barner can definitely produce some big plays of his own, but he's definitely more reliant on his blockers and isn't quite as durable as James banging inside. De'Anthony Thomas has proven he can be an all-purpose threat, but can he play as well on the inside to churn out those heavy yards? Tra Carson is supposed to be Oregon's new Blount--they might need him to power the ball down the throats of ASU defenders next Saturday.
Maybe it's time for Oregon to stop relying on him to carry the load and start becoming a more versatile group to prepare for the days when Big Game James is no longer there. The James show has kept the Oregon offense flying for the past two and a half years. It might be time for Oregon to learn how to keep the offense flying without him, because his time in Eugene is shorter rather than it's longer.