Niners running back LaMichael James already showing signs of progress 

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Frank Gore is far from hanging up the cleats.

The 49ers running back piled up 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns last season while on his way to becoming the all-time rushing leader in franchise history. He is, however, 30 years old and entering his ninth year of professional football — the point at which most running backs begin to slow down.

Fortunately for the 49ers, they may have the next generation already on their way up as the team looks to make another run at the Super Bowl trophy that eluded them last season.

Already making waves is LaMichael James, who played in only seven games — including all three of the team's playoff games — during his rookie season last year, but did enough to warrant some attention in 2013.

He has been practicing returning punts after getting more and more opportunities to do so last year as he got more comfortable, but Gore said something else has stood out in James' preparation.

"LaMichael especially is doing a great job with his pass protection," Gore said. "From last year to now, it's like night and day."

James said spending time with his teammates and coaches during the preparation for the season has made all the difference.

"I missed all the minicamps my rookie year," he said. "I really had no idea what was going on. I think just having my eyes in the right place and understanding the game. I have to give a lot of credit to Frank and [fullback] Bruce [Miller] and [running backs coach] Tom Rathman for helping me out in that regard."

James said he's put on 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, something Miller said has enabled James to run more north to south rather than east to west, and to make sure he puts defenders on their heels.

"You can tell when he makes contact he doesn't really go backward," Miller said. "He's going forward and puts the defender back in his shoes. That's what we talk about all the time is making contact and putting them in their shoes and not going backward."

The 49ers begin their preseason schedule against the Denver Broncos today at Candlestick Park at 6 p.m.

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