SANTA CLARA — LaMichael James might only get a couple of chances to touch the ball when the San Francisco 49ers face the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game Sunday.
All he wants is one.
San Francisco’s kickoff and punt return specialist spent most of the season buried behind running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in the backfield. He has started to make his mark in the playoffs, though, and he’ll get a major shot at Seattle on special teams — which has been a deciding factor for the 49ers on this stage before.
“Anytime you’re at a point like this, you’ve got two equal teams. You have to find an edge somewhere,” James said before the 49ers left for Seattle late Friday afternoon. “It might come down to a special teams play somewhere.”
These 49ers know that all too well.
Kyle Williams will long be remembered for his two costly fumbles in San Francisco’s 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the 2012 NFC championship game. That included losing a fumble on a punt return in overtime that set up Lawrence Tynes’ winning field goal.
James also understands one moment on a major stage can wash away an otherwise forgettable season.
He was inactive for six of San Francisco’s first eight games, and he returned just one kickoff during that span. This is the same standout running back who finished third in the 2010 Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore at Oregon — and 10th as a junior — and remains popular among 49ers fans for his interaction on social media and his 5-foot-9, 195-pounds in a league of larger men.
Even still, James never publicly complained about playing time. He relied on his friends, family and former coaches, who reminded him to keep working and waiting for an opportunity to shine.
“It was hard, especially when you have confidence in yourself,” James said. “You’re a competitor and you want to be out there on the field contributing in some way. I can’t say it wasn’t tough. I wanted to be out there with the guys.”
James emerged late in the year in the return game, and he has showed off his skills in the playoffs.
In the wild-card round at frigid Green Bay, the 49ers got the ball with 12:06 remaining after the Packers had taken a 17-13 lead. Colin Kaepernick capped the possession with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, swinging the momentum in what ended with a 23-20 victory for San Francisco.
While most will remember how that critical drive ended, the 49ers remember how it started — with James fielding a kickoff at the goal line and returning it to the 37, where he was pushed out of bounds.
James finished with three punt returns totaling 78 yards. He also had two kickoff returns for 20 yards.
“He was rock solid,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Carolina noticed, too. The Panthers kicked away from James in the divisional round last week, when he had two fair catches on punts and never had a chance to take a kickoff out of the end zone.
But James knows his next opportunity might only be a play away. After a quiet divisional-round showing in last season’s playoffs, James had five carries for 34 yards and a touchdown in the NFC championship game victory at Atlanta.
“Just experience, being here before and knowing what it takes. We know where we are. We know how hard it is. That’s the way I look at it,” James said. “I know what to expect. Just got to go out there and compete and hope to get a chance.”
NOTES: The 49ers had a healthy showing in Friday’s final practice. OLB Ahmad Brooks (illness), CB Carlos Rogers (hamstring) and FB Will Tukuafu (knee) took part and looked well. While Rogers and Tukuafu were listed as questionable on the injury report, both are expected to play Sunday. … Among the entries for Saturday’s $100,000 California Derby is a colt named Harbaugh, which was running at 10-1 odds. The 49ers coach joked that the field “better not underestimate him.”