James in spotlight after Hunter injury

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Thursday, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh noted the cheerful nature of his team as they began training camp.

It didn’t take long for the reality of an NFL camp to dampen the mood of the team. Saturday, the 49ers were coming to grips with the season-ending loss of popular and valuable reserve running back Kendall Hunter, who tore the ACL in his right knee Friday in the team’s second camp practice.

Players and coaches lamented the loss and had a similar theme.

"You've got to try to play for him,” said fellow running back LaMichael James, who counts Hunter as one of his best friends on the team. “Give a little extra.”

James will be one of the players the 49ers look to fill Hunter’s void as a valuable change-of-pace back. Like Hunter, James is a smallish player who the 49ers can do multiple things with. In 2012, when James was a rookie, he played well after Hunter was lost for the season in November with a torn left Achilles.

In the twisted world of the NFL, Hunter’s injury gives James a much better chance of making the 53-man roster in a crowded backfield.

“I know everyone is looking at me,” James said.

Earlier in the voluntary part of the year, James worked out on his own and was not adverse to the 49ers trading him. However, he started working out with the team. Had Hunter stayed healthy, there was a possibility James could have been trade-or-release material.

Now, James, who will battle rookie Bruce Ellington for return duties, has a clearer path to the field. Rookie Carlos Hyde will also have a bigger role and 2013 fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore should also get opportunities once he starts practicing.

“Does it get any better than [Hunter] as a person or contributor? No. But next man up is not a cliché,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roma said. “It’s a way of life.”