SANTA CLARA -- Richie James Jr.’s rookie season hasn't gone as he envisioned.
Yet, in an otherwise disappointing freshman campaign, the wide receiver provided the 49ers with a huge special-teams play Sunday in their 26-23 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks at Levi's Stadium.
James didn't nail down a role as the 49ers’ slot receiver when he had a chance. He also was taken off punt returns when he muffed punts in back-to-back weeks.
But in Week 15, he made his contribution to the team with a 97-yard touchdown on a kickoff return after the Seahawks jumped out to a 6-0 lead. James became the first 49ers rookie to score on a kickoff return since Amos Lawrence in 1981.
James received some great blocking, broke a tackle, made kicker Sebastian Janikowski miss and outran the Seahawks’ pursuers in route to the end zone. Then, James kept sprinting along the back of the end zone and to the 49ers’ sideline.
“I wanted to keep running,” James said after the win. “I ain’t lying, I was tired for at least three series after that. I had to catch my breath for a minute. I shouldn’t have done that, but I did. “
James was a seventh-round draft pick from Middle Tennessee. He said he hopes the learning experience of his rookie season will make him a better player next season on a team that he expects to make a large leap.
“For me, it’s disappointing because I wanted more,” James said. “But at the same time, I have to be conscious that I made an NFL roster as a seventh-round draft pick. A whole year on an NFL roster is not a bad thing. Yeah, I can do so much more. That’s what next year is for. That’s what I build off.”
James has appeared in 11 games this season, catching five passes for 94 yards. Even though Trent Taylor has taken over as the 49ers' slot receiver, James believes he's growing more comfortable as he comprehends coach Kyle Shanahan’s playbook.
“You've all the heard the words,” James said. “You get into it, and things have started to click. I’ve gotten so much better over time, learning the offense and learning concepts.
“It gives me something to look forward to, for sure. It’s going to be a huge year next year with everybody coming back from injuries. This team is going to be unreal.”