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Oregon running back LaMichael James led the NCAA with 1,731 yards rushing last season. - AP

James aims for improvement

EUGENE — LaMichael James certainly isn't shy about making bold predictions for No. 3 Oregon this season.

"We can get better," he said. "The sky's the limit for us."

Big things are expected from the Ducks after they went 12-1 last season, captured their second straight Pac-10 title and played in the BCS championship game.

The expanded Pac-12 preseason media poll predicted that Oregon would win both the new North Division and the inaugural conference championship game. The Associated Press preseason Top 25 placed the Ducks behind only Oklahoma and Alabama — and a spot in front of season-opening opponent LSU.

James, now a junior, is one of the reasons for such lofty expectations.

The Heisman Trophy finalist — he finished third behind winner Cam Newton of Auburn and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck — led the NCAA in overall rushing yards with 1,731 last season, setting a single-season school record. He averaged 144.2 rushing yards, also topping the nation.

James scored 21 touchdowns as the centerpiece of the Ducks' speedy spread option offense that confounded opponents until Oregon faced Auburn in the national title game.

The Tigers held James to just 49 yards on 13 carries. But he did catch a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Darron Thomas in the 22-19 loss.

"We've got to play better. That really starts in practice. I feel like if we practice hard each and every day than we'll overcome what we did last year," James said when Oregon opened their fall camp, the loss still stinging.

James is touted as a front-runner for the Heisman again this year, as is Luck. He's also on the watch list for every significant running back award this season.

And it shouldn't be overlooked that Oregon also has Kenjon Barner in its backfield.

Barner, a junior like James, was used in different ways last season, including two-back situations with James. But he missed two games after sustaining a scary concussion in a game at Washington State.

Barner finished with 1,040 all-purpose yards and had nine touchdowns, six on the ground, two via pass and one punt return for a score.

"He's really an unbelievable player. He can do anything," James said about Barner. "He can play receiver, he can tackle, I'm sure he could throw the ball if you asked him to. He could start for any team in the country, that's how good Kenjon really is."

James and Barner, who are close friends, both went to summer school in Eugene and bulked up — considerably. The 5-foot-9 James said he was up from about 180 to 195, as is the 5-foot-11 Barner. Although it's probably safe to say some of that weight dropped off once daily practices started.

James said it's all about dedication.

"You can always be better," he said. "It just depends on how hard you work."

It looks as if the Ducks have already found the heirs apparent to James and Barner in true freshman De'Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson. Both have impressed Oregon's coaches this fall.

Thomas came out of Los Angeles and Carson played at Liberty-Eylau High in Texarkana, Texas, where James also went to high school.

Fellow Texan Lache Seastrunk had been expected to be in the mix, but he had slipped down the depth chart. Seastrunk had ties to Willie Lyles of Houston-based Complete Scouting Services. The NCAA is looking at whether Oregon's association with Lyles was improper.

Citing homesickness, Seastrunk was granted his release from Oregon last week and has enrolled at Baylor.

James has repeatedly said he doesn't pay attention to outside distractions.

"There's always controversy. We play for the team and I play for the team. I don't play for anybody else. If you have to worry about what the fans say or what the media has to write about, you're playing for the wrong reasons," he said.

James first grabbed attention as a redshirt freshman after running back LeGarrette Blount was suspended for punching a Boise State player after Oregon's 2009 season opener. He ran for a Pac-10 freshman-record 1,546 yards and was honored as the league's freshman of the year.

His reputation was tainted in spring 2010 when he was accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge. James apologized to the woman and was suspended for the season opener against New Mexico.

Most say that James is essentially a good kid who had a tough start. His father was shot and killed before he was born, and his grandmother, who raised him, died of cancer when he was a prep star in Texas.

He has often said his goal is not the Heisman, but someday being named an Academic All-American. Last year the sociology major finished with a 3.01 grade-point average.

In fact, his education was the primary reason he decided to stay in school for his junior year rather than go to the NFL draft. That, and his fellow Ducks.

"I love my teammates. I think that's the big key," he said. "I don't want to let those guys down."

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