EUGENE -- Oregon running back LaMichael James has been asked several times if he will consider entering the NFL Draft after this season. Chances are he'll be asked several more times before the No. 2 Ducks face No. 1 Auburn in the Bowl Championship Series title game Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.
His answers so far have been similar to the one he gave after Wednesday's practice at the Moshofsky Center: "Of course I want to be a part of this team next year and the season after that," James said. "I like being here."
Notice he didn't say he is returning or that he is leaving. In fact, he didn't say much of anything at all.
No rush. James has time. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft is Jan. 15, five days after the BCS title game. Come then, win or lose, James may realize that it's time to go pro because he might not have much more to accomplish in Eugene.
In two seasons, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound James, a third-year sophomore, has already put together arguably the most impressive career for a running back in Oregon history, gaining 3,228 yards with 35 rushing touchdowns. He needs 69 yards to break Oregon's all-time career rushing mark of 3,296 held by Derek Loville (1986-89).
"I want to be the best I can be," James said.
He may already be there, at least at the college level.
Oregon has produced 15 running backs who have played in the NFL. Ducks running backs coach Gary Campbell coached all but four in his 28 years with the Ducks and has high praise for James in particular.
"I never really sat down and thought about it," Campbell said, "but I think he's probably the best back that I've had there."
Campbell has coached five who played in the NFL in the past 10 years. Still active are Carolina's Jonathan Stewart, Tampa Bay rookie LeGarrette Blount and Detroit's nine-year veteran Maurice Morris.
Reuben Droughns rushed for 3,602 yards and 19 touchdowns during his eight-year career with four teams from 2001 to 2008. Onterrio Smith spent two seasons in the league (2003-04). Each brought different strengths. Droughns and Smith broke tackles with tree trunks for legs. Morris was shifty. Stewart used a rare blend of power and speed. Jeremiah Johnson, on injured reserve the past two seasons with Houston, had amazing field vision and change of direction abilities.
James, Campbell said, encompasses all those traits other than size but still manages to pack a wallop.
"He's a powerful back," Campbell said. "He has great cutting ability. He has great stop-and-go ability. He's a guy that can get out of trouble. He can take a hit and maintain his balance."
Campbell said most running backs typically have a few flaws. Campbell sees no real flaw in James' game and said he even has done a good job as a blocker.
"For his size, he's probably our best protector," Campbell said. "He's really a jack of all trades."
But what separates James from the pack -- literally as well as figuratively -- is his sprinter speed. He ran the 100 meters for Oregon's track team last spring and finished fifth in the Pac-10 with a time of 10.72 seconds. It's why he averages more than six yards per carry. It's why he scores every 14.6 carries. It's the reason he is the only running back ranked in the school's top 10 rushers to average more than 100 yards per game (134.5)
Many running backs are fast but few sprinters have the ability to play running back.
"It is kind of unique," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "Some guys have the ability to make somebody miss but they can't accelerate and run away. He can do that and there's not a lot of guys who can do that."
James said Campbell's praise is meaningful considering how long he's been at Oregon and the players he's coached.
"It means a lot. Coach Campbell has been here 75 years..." James said, pausing to laugh, "so he's coached a lot of different running backs and he's had all kinds so it really is an honor. I really love coach Campbell. I like playing for him."
But is that enough for James to return? What would be?
James finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Should he return next season, he could be the favorite.
But that prospect wasn't enough to lure Jonathan Stewart back for his senior season in 2007. He left and went No. 13 overall to Carolina and received a $14 million contract over five seasons.
James said he enjoys the excitement of college football over the NFL, which he said he doesn't watch.
"It's boring," he said. "Everybody is so good they are always getting tackled. You never see anything exciting because everyone is so good."
He might not watch the NFL but he plans to plan in it someday.
Rob Rang, a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, said if James came out after this season, he could be picked in the second or third round, primarily because of his speed.
"Obviously he's a dynamic player," Rang said. "But size is obviously a huge concern."
Given James' lack of ideal size, he is likely to be a platoon player, Rang said, adding that James couldn't do much to raise his stock by returning for another season.
"Just the fact that he plays the running back position and has two solid years of play I would think he has to be considering it strongly," Rang said.
While size might be an issue in the NFL, Campbell said James' stature has only accentuated his speed in college.
"The fact that he is so small and can hide a little bit and is so hard to find and if you can't track him from a distance he'll avoid you because he'll get on you so quick," Campbell said. "And he'll be gone because he has great lateral movement. That's what makes him so special that he has that escapeability in such a small, little area."
After Jan. 10, James' next escape could be out of Eugene for good.