Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 4 Oregon. The Ducks have to replace quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James, but remain one of college football's top-five teams for 2012.
LaMichael James or Darron Thomas: Which is Oregon Football's Bigger Loss?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Considering the way Chip Kelly has been able to plug any combination into his backfield with success over the years, the biggest loss for Oregon this season may be the receiving duo of Lavasier Tuinei and tight end David Paulson or linebacker Josh Kaddu and safety Eddie Pleasant on defense. Going back to Kelly’s days as offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, his quarterbacks consistently have been among the conference leaders in pass efficiency and total offense. Darron Thomas finishing ninth in the Pac-12 in total offense last season was an aberration and likely more a result of having James, Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas in the offense. Replacing running backs has been just as seamless for Kelly’s offense from Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson to LeGarrette Blount to James and part-time work for Barner. Statistically, the Barner and Thomas combo still gives Oregon the big-play ability vacated by James -- James broke off a 20-yard run every 13 carries (Barner/Thomas did it every 16 carries); James ran for at least 10 yards every 5.5 carries (Barner/Thomas did it every 5.8 carries). Of course, most of those runs of at least 20 yards came from DeAnthony Thomas, not to mention Thomas’ contributions to the passing game. I’d argue the sophomore Thomas is the key to the offense more than Darron Thomas or James. I would say James is the bigger loss to the Oregon offense only because it cuts into the big-play ability that has taken Oregon to the top of the Pac-12. The conventional wisdom would be the departure of a veteran quarterback would be the bigger loss, but if Thomas was going to need to fight off competition from Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota this offseason anyway, it shows the quarterbacks were even more interchangeable than we thought.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This one is easy, quarterback Darron Thomas will be much harder to replace than running back LaMichael James. First, running backs are much easier to replace, find and develop than a quarterback. James was a remarkable player, a Heisman Finalist, a Doak Walker Award winner and led the nation in rushing twice in his three-year career. But Pac-12 defensive coordinators aren't taking any deep breaths now that James is gone. No, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are the West Coast's version of Trent Richardson. The transition from James to Barner/Thomas should be just as seamless as Mark Ingram to T-Rich. Barner has played 36 games but only started three times. Yet, when he did start, he was nearly as productive as James. Try 58 carries, three receptions, 433 yards rushing, 102 yards receiving and eight total touchdowns in three starts. And while Barner will play the more conventional role, fans can expect Thomas to the be the brightest star, and, like Richardson, might be as good if not better than James. As a true freshman, Thomas rolled-up 2,235 all-purpose yards and scored 18 total touchdowns. There will be little to no drop-off with the Black Mamba.
While the quarterback position hasn't been difficult to fill for Chip Kelly either, replacing Thomas will most assuredly be more complicated. First, Barner and Thomas have loads of experience and talent while Thomas replacements Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota have a combined one career start and 46 career pass attempts (all from Bennett). Both are talented options, likely are more athletic than Thomas and both should execute the Kelly offense well enough to compete for a Pac-12 title. But can the match his production while battling each other for playing time?
Thomas' production still feels wildly underrated. His 66 career touchdown passes top the school record book while his 5,910 yards passing are seventh all-time. He accounted for 71 total touchdowns in two seasons and is one of only three players in Pac-12 history to throw at least 30 touchdown passes in two seasons (Matt Leinart, Andrew Luck). He led the Ducks to back-to-back conference crowns, its first-ever BCS National Championship appearance and capped his career with Oregon's second Rose Bowl title (1917). No pressure for a redshirt freshman and a sophomore.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Even though LaMichael James was a special player, I think Darron Thomas is a bigger loss for the Ducks. Good skill players are never easy to replace, but finding a new starting quarterback always provides for more headaches for coaching staffs.
Even though Bryan Bennett started one game last year, Colorado didn’t represent the toughest competition in the Pac-12. Bennett also played well in relief of Thomas against Arizona State and Washington State, but has yet to start for a full season. Marcus Mariota made a push for playing time in the spring and seems likely to begin fall practice as the No. 1 quarterback. Whether it’s Mariota or Bennett, I think Oregon will be in good hands at the quarterback position. However, anytime you have to break in a new starter under center, there is a transition period.
James was one of college football’s top players during his career, but the ground attack won’t miss a beat with Thomas and Barner leading the way. Oregon has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last five seasons and return two capable running backs in De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner.
The Ducks shouldn’t suffer much (if any) of a drop off in the transition from Thomas and James to Mariota/Bennett and Thomas/Barner. However, the new quarterback has yet to make a start in a road environment like USC, California or Washington State. Having Thomas’ experience could have been enough for Oregon to topple the Trojans in the Pac-12 pecking order this year. Chip Kelly’s high-powered attack might suffer a few hiccups with a new quarterback early in the year, but should rank near the top of the nation in scoring by the end of the season.
Darron Thomas, hands down. Yes Chip Kelly lost a 5,000-yard rusher in James, but the Ducks' backfield cupboard is anything but bare. First there's Kenjon Barner, a senior who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards himself last season and for his career is averaging better than six yards per carry.
While Barner may be the starter, he may not finish the season as Oregon's top rusher. Barner will share the load with De'Anthony Thomas, the ridiculously talented sophomore who rushed for 155 yards on just two carries in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win, and averaged nearly 16 yards every time he touched the ball (rushing attempts, receptions, punt and kickoff returns) in 2011. He also scored 18 touchdowns (seven rushing, nine receiving, two on kickoff returns) as a freshman. There's not a coach in the country who wouldn't love to have Kelly's "problem" at running back.
As far as quarterback goes, Kelly has, well Kelly's not really sure what he has just yet as the battle for the starting job remains wide open. Thomas shocked everyone when he declared he was foregoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. Unfortunately, it's a decision Thomas would probably like to take back considering he was bypassed by all 32 NFL teams in the draft. Instead of lighting up the scoreboard and aiming to lead Oregon to its first national title this fall, Thomas is faced with the tough task of trying to make a lasting impression in some NFL team's minicamp this summer in hopes of earning an invite to training camp.
Meanwhile, the early favorite to take over as the Ducks' starting quarterback was sophomore Bryan Bennett. Bennett made one start last season and put up respectable stats (25-46, 369 yards, six TDs, no INTs) overall. However, it's no small task replacing Thomas, who threw for more than 2,700 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2011 and left as Oregon's all-time leader in passing touchdowns with 66.
That's where redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota comes in. The athletic Mariota, who hails from Honolulu, Hawaii, apparently made enough of an impression during spring practice that at worst he has forced the coaching staff to hold off on naming the starting quarterback until fall practice begins. And depending on who you ask, it may now be Mariota's job to lose.
Either way, the combination of Barner and Thomas in the backfield means Oregon fans will happily root for James as he starts his NFL career with San Francisco, while Duck supporters will be go through the fall wishing Thomas, and not Issac Dixon, was wearing No. 5 and still under center.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
James has the bigger name and was drafted by into the NFL, but I think Oregon will miss Thomas more in 2012. It simply comes down to the fact that the Ducks have multiple weapons who can make big plays running the ball, but the quarterback position remains a question. Thomas was awesome over the last two seasons, throwing for 5,642 yards and 63 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. Bryan Bennett may be the next UO star signal caller, but most of his limited experience has been in mop-up duty. He did throw for 156 yards and two scores against Colorado last year, but we will have to see how Bennett plays on a consistent basis.
Obviously James stats were off the charts, running for over 5,000 yards and 53 scores during the last three seasons. However the Ducks have other stars waiting to become household names. Kenjon Barner had 939 yards and 11 scores in a backup role last season, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. When James missed two starts last year, Barner starred against Arizona State (171 yards and 1 TD) and Colorado (115 yards and 2 TDs). Additionally, all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas totaled 155 yards rushing and two touchdowns – on just two carries – in the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Both former stars will be missed in Eugene, but Thomas’ departure looms larger for this season.
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