SANTA CLARA -- LaMichael James said he is "most definitely" preparing as if he'll return punts and kickoffs for the 49ers on Sunday when they host the Carolina Panthers.
When will he find out if that's the case from his coaches?
"I'll probably find out Sunday, to be honest," James replied Thursday.
A healthy scratch the past three games, James' speed and play-making ability needs to get on the field, coach Jim Harbaugh said last week.
Kyle Williams has served as the 49ers' primary return man this season, but he's coming off a shaky performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"When my number's called, I'll be ready," James said. "I've got to take advantage of my opportunity."
James was poised to seize the punt-return role this offseason, but a knee injury in the exhibition finale shelved him for the first three regular-season games.
Oregon's all-time leading rusher, James admittedly struggled in the punt-return capacity in his two exhibition seasons.
"At first it was a little shaky," James said. "I never really did it much in college. I did it one year. Never really catching the NFL ball or studying the NFL punter and thinking about the wind.
"I was just kind of free-styling in college. A lot comes with it in the NFL: you've got to know what you're doing, study the ball, play the wind. I feel I'm well conditioned for it now."
James has taken more reps at practice in fielding punts. Come Thursday night, he'll be heading up the road to Stanford to root on his alma mater. Aside from bragging rights, more is on the line.
"I bet one of the coach's and a player a milkshake," James said. "They wanted that bet. So it's cool."
Michael Thomas, a practice-squad safety and the roster's lone Stanford product, said he's made a T-shirt bet with James. If Oregon wins, Thomas will wear a "Mariota For Heisman" shirt and don it in his social-media avatar; if Stanford wins, Thomas wants James to wear a shirt that reads, "Stanford: Kings of the North."
James wouldn't reveal which coach he wants to win a strawberry milkshake from, and there are plenty of candidates who used to coach on The Farm: Jim Harbaugh and assistants Greg Roman, Vic Fangio, Tim Drevno and Pete Hansen.