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IN THE LAST YEAR LAMICHAEL JAMES HAS EXPERIENCED SUCCESS MOST college athletes only read about. Stepping into Oregon's starting tailback role when LeGarrette Blount was suspended after the Boise State game on Sept. 3, the 5' 9" James rushed for 14 touchdowns and 1,546 yards—the second-best rushing total in Oregon history and the best ever by a Pac-10 freshman—and helped the Ducks win their first Pac-10 football title since 1995. In May, James ran the 100 meters (he finished fifth) and anchored Oregon's 4×100 relay in the Pac-10 track and field championships as the Ducks won that league title as well. James and fellow running back and sprinter Kenjon Barner became the first Oregon athletes in 74 years to win conference titles in football and track in the same academic year.
"Track was a good experience," says James. "It was very different from football of course, but it really helped me with my speed and my endurance."
The one serious blot on his otherwise sparkling year took place on Feb. 16, when James was arrested on five misdemeanor domestic violence charges stemming from a confrontation with a former girlfriend. Eventually he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of physical harassment, and the other four charges were dropped. He was sentenced to 140 hours of community service, and coach Chip Kelly suspended him for the Ducks' first game, against New Mexico. James, who issued a public letter of apology to the victim, doesn't see a need to rehabilitate his reputation—"The people who are going to judge me are the people who don't know me," he says—but he is bent on expanding his accomplishments beyond football.
"I want to be an academic All-America," says James, a sociology major. "I figure the football will take care of itself."
So far it has. Last year James distinguished himself with a slippery and surprisingly powerful running style. "He is a very complete player," says offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. "You kind of assume this little guy is going to be a jitterbug, but he has great vision, he has great power. He's got a great feel for fitting behind offensive linemen, so he's kind of hard to see. But then when he does turn north, he packs a punch.
"He's also a great practice player," Helfrich continues. "A lot of tailbacks historically have not been great practice players because what they do is hard. They get beat up a lot. But LaMichael is very competitive."
At Liberty-Eylau High in Texarkana, Texas, James ran for 3,643 yards over his final two seasons; in his junior year he also won the Class 3A state title in the 100 meters. But given his size, James wasn't sure which big-time college football programs might show interest. When Oregon contacted him, he had to get out a map to locate just where the campus was. He soon discovered that there was a lot to like about the Ducks, including an explosive offense and the opportunity to run track.
"That was a big part of my decision, to tell you the truth," he says. "As long as I'm here, I want to keep running track." He also has some goals on the football field. "I hope we get back to the Rose Bowl this season," he says, "and this time actually win the game."