Originally posted on The Duck Stops Here  |  Last updated 9/10/13
De'Anthony Thomas is a great college football player, one of the most unique and exciting talents in the history of the game. Over his career he's averaged a touchdown every 8.5 times he touches the ball, and several of those have been of the "wow, what just happened!" variety. He stuns opposing crowds to silence. He can make an opposing tackler look silly in the open field, or other times he simply outruns them with an unknown gear only a few players ever possess. In the Virginia game Thomas took a 40-yard sweep around right end where three defenders had angles on him along the sideline. He outran all three and tight roped the sideline like a magician crossing the Grand Canyon, only The Black Momba did it with 4.3 speed. DAT's been electronically timed in the 100 meters in 10.31, and somehow he's one of those athletes that seems even faster with a football under his arm. It's the suddenness rather than just the raw, straight-line speed. He cuts so smoothly and quickly he can turn defenders around. His first step, the quickness from zero to end zone is dazzling. Artful Dodger: Last November against Oregon State, De'Anthony Thomas had 17 carries for 122 yards and 3 tds, a game that suggested how effective he could be as a lead running back (Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images). So far this season the Crenshaw High comet has 29 carries for 252 yards and 5 touchdowns, 8.7 yards a carry. For his 124-yard, 3-touchdown effort against Virginia he was named PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Week. He hasn't yet been used much as a receiver, and opponents are kicking away from him, so there are even more ways he can get the ball and use his potent skills as the season progresses. The best part of watchng Thomas and rooting for him is that he handles all the attention and notices with an endearing modesty. Asked at practice about the POTW selection, he brushed it aside as quickly as a diving arm tackle at the 20. 'I'm just here to make plays," he told reporters. "That doesn't matter. It's week three, time to make some more plays." Thomas has never complained about touches. He cares about wins, and teammates. He seems to carry himself with an infectious joy. The morning after the Virginia game and a cross-country plane flight he was up at four a.m. and tweeted that he wanted to go fishing. He seems to be handling the increased work load well and in the Nicholls game he got most of his yardage running inside. The 5-9, 170-lb. junior can do that despite his small stature; he's wiry strong and has incredible body control, with a knack for slipping tackles, picking his way in tight spaces and shedding a lot of the heaviest contact. Occasionally defenders get a good shot at him or throw him down, but he wins way more of the battles than he loses: over his college career The Black Momba has carried the ball 176 times and average 8.8 yards a carry, and never missed a game with an injury. Fans and analysts speculate about whether the diminutive wonder can withstand a full season as Oregon's feature back. So far Gary Campbell, Scott Frost and Mark Helfrich have done a masterful job of balancing his workload and using his talents. He's had the ball 31 times from scrimmage after two games and returned two kicks, taken a couple of shots but emerged as the elusive weapon defenses have to account for on every play. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner seem capable of sharing the workload as the season gets serious. Each has had a couple of explosive plays from scrimmage, Tyner in one brief stint in the fourth quarter of the Virginia game. One challenge for Thomas is that historically, he's had whole games or even stretches of games where he's not much of a factor in the offense. He can go quiet, get neutralized by opponents, or ignored in the play-calling. Sometimes he becomes primarily a decoy, even a forgotten man. Against Arizona State last year he has 12 carries for 25 yards, and caught three passes for a net 4 yards. Against Cal he had 5 rushes for 13 yards, though he was effective as a receiver. Against USC, 3 carries, 9 yards, Washington State, 6 for 26. That can't happen this season. De'Anthony has much bigger role in Oregon's success with Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James graduated. If teams mass to ground him or assign a spy to hound him, Thomas has to find a way to defeat it and get lose. This year, the Ducks need him to be productive every week, because he's now one of the focal points of the offense. If they want to keep winning and keep him viable in the Heisman Trophy race, the Ducks need Thomas to have 12 productive games this fall. Going into the season there was a lot of worry about the Oregon running game, but with this three-headed monster toting the rock and quarterback Marcus Mariota turning in a pair of 100+-yard performances running the football, the running game looks like it will continue to be a strength in 2013, even with the loss of Barner and James, the workhorses of recent seasons. Oregon's offense gets a big test this weekend  when Tennessee comes to town. After having trouble running inside against Virginia (most of DAT's 124 came on outside runs; Marshall was stuffed repeatedly in the middle, though Tyner had success late) the Volunteers boast a massive defensive line and active linebackers. Defensive tackle Daniel McCullers anchors their 4-3 defensive front at 6-8, 351. He'll be lined up across from guard Mana Greig, a master of technique, but only 5-11, 287. Greigh will get help in the middle from center Hroniss Grasu (6-3, 293) and fellow guard Hamani Stevens 6-4, 312) but the three face an opposing challenge in trying to move Tennessee's big front off the ball, a challenge they have to conquer: Stanford and UCLA possess the similar size and athletic ability later in the year. Vols middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is 6-2, 243, and he had 138 tackles last year. That's a lot of run-stuffing. On Saturday, Steve Greatwood's offensive line group has to secure their double teams at the line of scrimmage in time to seal off Johnson at the second level, keep him off Thomas, Marshall and Tyner so they have some room to operate. He's gifted at fighting off blocks and loves to hit. It's a confrontation that figures crucially both in the outcome of the game and the season. If the Ducks can't establish their inside running game, it poses a problem for the offense going forward. It's a staple of the attack and part of their identity. Around the country people have the misconception that Oregon is all flash and misdirection but what's often misunderstood is that Chip Kelly's teams were physical and dominant in the running game, a power team disguised as a finesse team. Being able to move the pile, move the chains and wear teams down physically and emotionally has been a big part of their success. In their rare failures over the last four years, the other teams disrupted this basic component of the attack and forced the Ducks into adjustments. Stanford 2012, Auburn 2011, Ohio State 2010 all blew up the line of scrimmage. In those games, the Oregon running game was grounded. It's a new year with new coaches, and a new set of backs leading the attack. Gary Campbell has said that he thinks of newcomer Tyner as running back 2.5 rather than number 3. To keep the multiplicity and variety in what the Ducks do, to keep the offense potent and unpredictable, they have to be able to win the line of scrimmage and move the football, and show the ability to adjust quickly if they're not winning particularly one-on-one matchups. Chip Kelly excelled at having counters and answers for whatever a defense was doing in terms of stunts and scrape exchanges. Scott Frost is new at play calling and hasn't yet had to demonstrate Kelly's faculty and facile understanding of offensive football. Conversely, Frost may not have The Visor's legendary stubbornness either. In the weeks ahead fans will be watching closely to see how the new offensive coordinator and his head coach handle things when something is not working. On the second series of the Virginia game Frost ran Byron Marshall up the middle three times and all three attempts were stood up and stoned. On one of the carries Marshall fumbled. Though the Ducks recovered, it seemed to affect the young running back for the rest of the day. In interviews after the game he admitted it got into his head. Later in the game Oregon faced a fourth and short at the goal line. The call was a Zone-Read play to the left side, and Mariota saw an easy option to dart around the defense with the end crashing. He could have walked into the end zone. The thing was, Marshall was hugging tight to the football on the mesh. He didn't want another fumble. Virginia stuffed the play for a one-yard loss. First games are for learning lessons, and refining what you do. On the sideline after the play Mariota was seen patting Marshall on the helmet and reviewing what happened. Cohesion in the mesh is a basic building block in the Ducks potent offense, and so is providing a lane of daylight up front.  When it all comes together, the offense is a beautiful thing.
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