Oregon’s LaMichael James left home and hasn’t stopped running

LaMichael James slipped out of Texarkana, Texas, three years ago to become, after only 19 games, perhaps the most gifted and transcendent tailback in Oregon football history.

How James wriggled away is a question asked by all of Texas and Arkansas, several adjoining states, and most players who have ever tried to bring him down.

Trying to tackle the third-year sophomore is like grunion hunting. It looks easy because of the size advantage — James is only 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds — but just try it with your bare hands.

UCLA had him penned near the goal line at the Rose Bowl last year for what appeared to be a safety when James made a couple of joystick moves, found a seam and ran 49 yards to midfield. The run got lost in the eventual outcome, a 24-10 Oregon win, but James’ amazing goal-line escape allowed his team to “flip” the field with a punt that was downed at the UCLA one.


James recently dropped UCLA an anniversary card, slithering for 123 yards in last week’s 60-13 demolition of the Bruins.

“It’s like they spray cocoa butter or Pam on his jersey,” UCLA defensive tackle David Carter said. “He’s very shifty, very fast. You have to hold onto his jersey, pull him down. If you can’t wrap him, you have to hold on and wait for your teammates and hope he doesn’t spin out.”

News of James’ return to Los Angeles this weekend should be keeping USC defenders up at night. Last year, he ran for 183 yards against the Trojans in a 47-20 win.

His 161.83-yards-per-game average this season leads the nation. He already has scored 11 touchdowns, is averaging 7.25 yards a carry and is 29 yards shy of 1,000 for the season despite being suspended for a game.

You could not invent a more perfect back for Oregon’s space-age uniforms or “Jetsons” offense, a reason James was willing to become homesick 40 or 50 times when he signed his letter of intent.

“Everybody who’s from Texas stays in Texas,” he said recently outside the Moshofsky Center, the team’s indoor training facility. “I wanted to do something different for a change. So I took a chance and left. And I love it here.”

It took some time, though. Family and friends wanted him to play near home so they could commute from Texarkana, where James rushed for 2,043 and 26 touchdowns as a senior at Liberty-Eylau High. He also won the state 100-meter title in 2006 with a time of 10.51.

James threatened to return home more than once. In 2008, he was meandering in a distant place, with an uncertain future, while mourning the death of the grandmother who had raised him.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve had to go through in my life,” James said. “I still miss her every day.”

Oregon was also deep at running back with Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount, meaning the Ducks could redshirt James.

Oregon Coach Chip Kelly, the team’s offensive coordinator then, knew what they had in storage.

“He ripped us for an entire year on scout squad,” Kelly said.

James eventually grew more comfortable in Eugene and has excelled in football while maintaining a 3.0 grade-point average.

“Sometimes I still want to go home,” he said. “But when I get home, I want to go back.”

James caught his big break at the expense of teammate Blount, who was suspended for what turned out to be eight games after punching Boise State’s Byron Hout in the 2009 opener.

James had two carries for 22 yards that night in Boise — a teaser for the upcoming blockbuster movie.

“I knew it was my opportunity,” James said of the Blount incident. “Coach Kelly always told me to practice as if you were going to be the starter.”

He contributed 56 yards the next week against Purdue before busting loose two weeks later for 152 against Utah. He carried 27 times.

James is fast, but he’ll also hurt you up the middle.

“He’s much stronger and more physical than people give him credit for,” Kelly said. “Most of his yards are between the tackles.”

James became the first Oregon freshman to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and finished with a Pacific 10 Conference freshman record of 1,546.

“Did I think he was going to set the Pac-10 freshman rushing record?” Kelly said. “No. I’m not that smart. But we thought he was pretty good.”

Oregon ended USC’s seven-year run of conference dominance, went to its first Rose Bowl since the 1994 season and finished 10-3.

Everything was going great until February, when James was arrested in connection with a domestic abuse case involving his girlfriend. He became another mug shot in a tumultuous Oregon off-season that included the arrest and eventual departure of star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.

Kelly spent the off-season gathering information as the cases moved through the court system. James pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor physical harassment charge and read an apology letter in open court.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” James said recently.

Some criticized Kelly for suspending James for only one game when he suspended Blount for eight and kicked Masoli off the team.

“Everyone wants to paint everybody with one brush,” Kelly said. “All the punishments were different because all the incidents were different.”

Kelly was convinced this was a one-time mistake for James, not a pattern or precursor to more bad behavior.

“He learned a valuable lesson,” Kelly said. “Some guys didn’t learn, and they’re not here anymore. That’s the difference.”

James sat out Oregon’s 72-0 opening win over New Mexico, surely costing him plenty of rushing yardage.

He’s made up for missed time, though, gaining 227 against Portland State and topping that with a career-high 257 against Stanford on national television.

UCLA is still waiting for James to stop long enough to get a tracking number.

“He squirms out of things,” Bruins Coach Rick Neuheisel said.

Now it’s USC’s turn to try to stop “Squirm Thing.”

Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.