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NFC championship: Tailbacks provide offensive spark

After idling on the inactive list for the first 12 games, LaMichael James (23) has averaged 4.9 yards on 30 carries while giving starter Frank Gore some needed rest over the past five.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ / Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 8:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 8:58 p.m.

SANTA CLARA — Keep your eyes on the little guys Sunday.

Stocky Frank Gore and thunder-thighed Michael Turner will probably get the bulk of the rushing attempts in the NFC championship game, but the change of pace has become pretty interesting in both San Francisco and Atlanta. LaMichael James and Jacquizz Rodgers are starting to make some noise — almost like they did as star high school running backs in Texas, or when they elevated one of America's most heated rivalries in college.

“People are always trying to compare us, every time we play,” Rodgers said to a reporter who was trying to compare them. “Off the field we've always been cool. But it's not all about us. It's about helping your team try to get the victory.”

The Falcons and 49ers will be trying desperately for the victory that carries one of them to the Super Bowl, and these two high-energy halfbacks will likely be part of the plan.

James, a rookie, has begun to integrate into the San Francisco offense since Kendall Hunter tore his Achilles' tendon at New Orleans on Nov. 25. After idling on the inactive list for the first 12 games, he averaged 4.9 yards on 30 carries while giving starter Frank Gore some needed rest over the past five. James also averaged a robust 29.8 yards on 14 kickoffs.

“I'm happy for him,” Gore said. “LaMichael has been doing a great job — special teams, even when he gets the chance to run the ball or catch the ball. When I first saw him in camp, it took him some time to adjust. Now I'm just happy for him. He's helping the team.”

Rodgers, a second-year player, is more entrenched in Atlanta, rushing for 567 yards in his first two seasons. He's even more valued as a receiver out of the backfield, with 53 catches for 402 yards this year. (He and Michael Turner formed one of only four NFL running back tandems with 750-plus total yards each in 2012.) Rodgers also returns kickoffs; his 25.7-yard average this year was the seventh-best single-season mark in Falcons history.

“As a player, anytime you're able to be a part of this, it's always good,” Rodgers said. “As I've come along, my confidence has been built in myself, which allows me to play faster and better as the season is going along.”

Rodgers' 64 rushing yards in the Falcons' playoff victory over Seattle last week was a career high.

If James and Rodgers don't play starring roles in Sunday's game, it will be a huge departure from their more formative stages.

Both were highly recruited prep runners, both members of the Class of 2008 who played as seniors in the fall of 2007. Rodgers — whose uncle, Michael Lewis, was a 49ers safety — is from Richmond, Texas; James is from Texarkana, about six hours away. “He scored 50-something touchdowns in high school in one year,” James said of Rodgers. “You have no choice but to admire that.”

They never faced off as preps, but soon became reluctant rivals in the drizzle of the Pacific Northwest.

James was named Oregon's Most Outstanding Player as a redshirt freshman in 2009, and was unanimous All-America as a sophomore while finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting. James was a consensus All-America as a junior, too, when he led the nation in rushing at 150.42 yards per game.

“What made him great as a college player was he had pretty decent size — but he had great speed,” said former NFL offensive lineman Glenn Parker, now an analyst for the Pac-12 Network. “And what he did well, he'd make one cut, one read and go. That Oregon system, you get the ball into the hands of your playmakers, and you make your read and go. In the open field, he was dynamic. He gets to the line and he can be gone.”

James was fast enough to win the 100 meters at the Texas state track meet in 2006, with a time of 10.51 seconds.

He finished second in Pac-12 history with career totals of 5,082 rushing yards and 53 rushing touchdowns. Along the way, James' Ducks played in two Rose Bowls and one BCS championship game, losing to Cam Newton and Auburn after the 2010 season.

Discussing the impending conference championship game, James said, “I don't think it's too much difference, playing in a BCS game at Oregon. I think that really helped me out getting to big games like this. It's kind of second nature to me. I really don't think it's that big of a deal.”

The versatile Rodgers was only slightly less decorated in college. Playing under a smaller spotlight at Oregon State, he finished his three-year career in Corvallis with 3,877 rushing yards, 1,056 receiving yards and 51 touchdowns.

“Jacquizz was much tougher to bring down,” Parker said. “Particularly in college, he was harder to bring down than people realized till they played him. Then they knew. Mike Riley's system at Oregon State was more friendly to the NFL. Jacquizz is used to pass blocking, understanding reads. He's very good at the screen game, waiting for his offensive linemen. ... He's had a little easier time of it in the NFL.”

Jacquizz's younger brother, wide receiver James Rodgers, is on the Atlanta practice squad.

LaMichael James and Jacquizz Rodgers faced off twice as Civil War opponents, as the Oregon-Oregon State series is affectionately called, with the Ducks winning both times. Between the two of them, they lit up the scoreboard with eight touchdowns and littered the stat sheet with 625 yards from scrimmage in those two games.

The two running backs aren't best friends, but they do stay in touch. James said they had spoken by phone twice this week. They know Sunday's game isn't personal. Now, the Civil War — that's a different matter altogether. According to James, Rodgers has yet to pay off a bet from Oregon State's 48-24 loss to Oregon on Nov. 24.

“He owes me shoes right now — Quizz and James (Rodgers),” James said. “They owe me a pair of shoes. I need some kicks. That's what we bet this year.”

James claims he can choose the style and colors. But he's in no hurry to make a decision.

“I like to milk things,” James said. “You know, like draw it out. And that's what I'm gonna do.”

Funny, it's hard to imagine either one of these guys doing something slowly.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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