LaMichael James has improved so much in the past year he'll get first crack as the 49ers' return specialist in Thursday's exhibition opener against Denver -- and perhaps beyond.

"We look at him as a trusted agent back there to field punts and kickoffs" coach Jim Harbaugh said after Sunday's practice.

A year ago that wasn't the case and James lacked confidence when it came to fielding punts in the preseason.

"I struggled with it" James said. "But I never held my head low and said I'm going to quit doing it. It was something I said I was going to get out there and get better and do each day."

Daily post-practice sessions took place throughout his rookie year and this offseason with James getting nonstop tutoring by special teams coordinator Brad Seely and his assistant Tracy Smith.
One punt-return drill that James particularly credits for his improvement involved Seely standing in front of him blocking his view of a punt and then James finding the ball as it descends.

"If you can do that drill you can catch it because you're not actually seeing the punt come off the foot" James said.

Once the ball gets in James' hands everyone is well aware of his potential to deliver a big play. His rookie season saw him do that once he debuted in December. Especially noteworthy were his 62-yard kickoff return that set up a Dec. 16 win at New England and a 15-yard touchdown run in the NFC Championship game at Atlanta.

James' biggest strides over the past year have come in his pass protection and an ability to run vertically between the tackles Harbaugh stated.

"You talk about it how players from the end of their first year to the start of the second year have the chance to make the greatest amount of gains that they'll have in their career" Harbaugh said. "LaMichael is a real living example of that. It's noticeable in all areas."

James credited his improvement in blitz pickup to running back Frank Gore fullback Bruce Miller and their position coach Tom Rathman.