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Stealth season

A photograph of LaMichael James went viral this week, the shot of the Oregon star cowering on a Disneyland thrill ride literally zooming across social media platforms.

Reaction to the photo -- and his terror-filled expression -- surprised and amused James.

“I guess I’m on a lot of people’s minds,” he said.

It didn’t seem that way during the latter half of the college football season.

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The 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist mostly fell out of discussion for this season’s award despite leading the nation in rushing yards per game.

A subpar performance -- by James’ standards -- in a season-opening loss to Louisiana State, an elbow injury that forced him to sit out two games and a quieter-than-expected effort in a November loss to USC left James 10th in Heisman balloting.

Nothing to be embarrassed about, certainly, but voters apparently were not swayed by a season that included four 200-yard rushing performances, including one against UCLA in the Pac-12 Conference title game that sent Oregon to the Rose Bowl for the second time in three years.

However, James has commanded the attention of Wisconsin.

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Badgers Coach Bret Bielema categorizes the 5-foot-9, 195-pound junior as a player who “makes something out of nothing” when a defense does its job.

“There’s only a certain number of guys that can have that trait,” Bielema said. “He really epitomizes that.”

James has thrilled Ducks fans and driven defensive coordinators crazy through three consecutive 1,500-yard seasons.

Oregon Coach Chip Kelly continues to be surprised by James.

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“There’s always going to be one thing that you see and you’re just like, ‘Wow,’” Kelly said. “A lot of times we catch ourselves as coaches. We just look at each other and shake our head.”

So does James, who is averaging 149.6 yards rushing a game.

“Half the things I do,” he said, “I still wonder, like, how did I do that?”

As unpredictable as he can be, James also is known for his patience. Many of his best plays come not when he blazes through a hole, but after biding his time behind a blocker, waiting for the optimal time to exploit a seam.

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Oregon tackle Mark Asper describes James as “the best set-up guy” in the country.

It wasn’t always that way.

James, who played high school football in Texas, began developing that skill while redshirting at Oregon in 2008.

“At first I was just getting the ball and running like a chicken with his head cut off,” he said. “But now I kind of know how to deliver the defenders to the offensive linemen.”

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Ducks players are quick to recall their favorite James highlight.

Receiver Lavasier Tuinei pointed to a 2010 victory at Tennessee, when James took a handoff and ran right, then cut back behind the line of scrimmage and ran down the left sideline for a 72-yard touchdown.

“He came out of nowhere,” Tuinei said.

Center Hroniss Grasu pointed to this season’s game against California, when James blazed his way to a 53-yard touchdown without a block from an offensive lineman.

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“We thought the play was supposed to go to the right,” Grasu said, “but I guess the skill guys heard to go left.”

Later in the Cal game, James suffered a dislocated elbow that prevented him from playing against Arizona State and Colorado.

He rushed for at least 142 yards in four of the Ducks’ final six games, but a 78-yard effort in a 38-35 loss to USC sealed his Heisman fate.

Now James is focused on winning a Bowl Championship Series game in what could be his final appearance with the Ducks. The Oregonian, citing an unnamed source inside the Oregon program, reported two weeks ago that James would declare for the NFL draft. James said this week that he would wait until after the Rose Bowl to make his decision.

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Two years ago in the Rose Bowl, Oregon lost to Ohio State, 26-17.

Last season, James suffered a dislocated finger in the BCS title game against Auburn, keeping him sidelined during a key series in which Auburn stopped running back Kenjon Barner three times near the goal line. Oregon eventually lost, 22-19.

So finishing with a flourish and a victory Monday against Wisconsin would be memorable for James.

Regardless, he already has an enduring keepsake of the 2012 Rose Bowl.

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And he’s not afraid to admit it.

“I have to say the picture,” he said. “It’s probably going to be the most memorable thing ever.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A defensive coordinator’s nightmare

LaMichael James’ career rushing stats at Oregon:

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*--* Season ATT. YDS. AVG. LNG TD 2011 222 1,646 7.4 90 17 2010 294 1,731 5.9 76 21 2009 230 1,546 6.7 60 14 *--*


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