Pac-12 football: Thomas keeps Ducks flyin' high

Versatile running back is a true triple threat as he enters sophomore season

Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 10:15 p.m. MDT

Oregon head coach Chip Kelly's offense averaged over 46 points per game last season, but has six new starters this season.

Associated Press

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Editor's note: Sixth in a series previewing the Pac-12 football season.

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — De'Anthony Thomas burst onto the college football scene in a big way. The Oregon freshman netted 2,235 all-purpose yards and scored 18 touchdowns last season.

Thomas' statistics reflect his versatility. They include success rushing, receiving and as a return specialist.

"I think the only thing we won't do is let him throw because I've seen him throw," joked Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

Truth be told, though, Thomas is one of those special talents that can probably do it all. Besides nine TDs receiving and seven rushing, Thomas took two kickoff returns back for scores. He also had a two-point conversion.

Kelly noted that Thomas has done some things in practice that kind of made folks go "wow." It's been that way, he explained, from the beginning.

Even so, the Oregon staff didn't want to overload him. The fact that Thomas was able to handle roles at running back and receiver as a true freshman, Kelly pointed out, says a lot about his football acumen.

"He's a smart kid, understands concepts well, and we'll keep adding to his plate a little bit," Kelly said.

The conservative approach, however, is tempered. Kelly explained that when you have a guy as talented as Thomas in the program, it's the coaching staff's job to find ways to get him the football.

More opportunities should abound with the early departure of LaMichael James, who became Oregon's all-time leading rusher with 5,082 yards. He opted to turn pro after his junior season — leaving Thomas and senior Kenjon Barner (939 yards in 2011) in the backfield.

"Knowing that we have Kenjon and De'Anthony let's you sleep at night," Kelly said. "And then we have to see who we will develop as a third and fourth because you're going to need depth in this league."

OFFENSE: Is it the scheme, or is it the players? Oregon's high-scoring offense (46.1 points per game) may find out this fall with six new starters. Sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota are competing for the starting quarterback job, vacated when Darron Thomas opted to leave early for the NFL.

DEFENSE: The Ducks do have some defensive stars. Senior end Dion Jordan was a first-team all-conference honoree in 2011 and senior middle linebacker Kiki Alonso was the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl. Senior safety John Boyett and senior linebacker Michael Clayled — team leaders in tackles last season — also return.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Oregon has one of the best punters in the nation in senior Jackson Rice, who was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2011. The Ducks also return a pair of experienced kickers in senior Rob Beard and junior Alejandro Maldonado.

PLAYMAKERS: Thomas, as noted, is a big-play threat on offense and special teams. Oregon fans are no doubt eager to see what he'll do for an encore after a thrilling freshman season. ... Rice can be a game-changer at punter. He averaged 45.9 yards per kick in 2011.

TOUGH STRETCH: November appears to be the most challenging time for the Ducks. The slate includes Pac-12 games at USC, California and Oregon State, as well as a home date with Stanford a week before the Civil War in Corvallis.

EXTRA POINTS: Junior defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli, a Brighton High alumnus, has 31 career tackles for the Ducks. ... Last season's Rose Bowl win was Oregon's first in "The Granddaddy of Them All" since 1917. ... The Ducks received 117 of a possible 123 first-place votes as the choice to win the Pac-12 North in the preseason media poll.

Email: dirk@desnews.com Twitter: @DirkFacer

Oregon Ducks at a glance

2012 media poll: 1st, North

2011 record: 12-2, 8-1

Head coach: Chip Kelly (4th season, 34-6 overall)

2012 schedule

Sept. 1 — ARKANSAS STATE

Sept. 8 — FRESNO STATE

Sept. 15 — TENNESSEE TECH

Sept. 22 — ARIZONA

Sept. 29 — at Washington State (Seattle)

Oct. 6 — WASHINGTON

Oct. 18 — at Arizona State

Oct. 27 — COLORADO

Nov. 3 — at USC

Nov. 10 — at California

Nov. 17 — STANFORD

Nov. 24 — at Oregon State

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