PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Quarterback Darron Thomas #5 of the Oregon Ducks passes the ball over Chris Borland #44 of the Wisconsin Badgers in the first quarter at the 98th Rose Bowl Game on January 2, 2012 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
It's certainly a shocking move, one that will send reverberations all the way from Los Angeles to Seattle as Pac-12 2012 gets underway. The Oregon Ducks replacing their running back was one thing, but having to replace starting running back and quarterback is a tall order.
Darron Thomas has decided he's NFL Draft-worthy. And Oregon is left in an awkward situation going into next year.
There is logic to his decision. Thomas might be a project quarterback who has a lot of developing to do, but it's not like Oregon is a pro-style friendly system that would help him improve his quarterback mechanics or decision-making by a wide degree. The offense depends a lot on hitting spots rather than making reads, and that won't really help him become an NFL quarterback if he returned for another season. That is the peril of being a quarterback in Oregon, where the longer you stay in, the more you're at risk at having your physical tools atrophy or risk injury in the run-intensive Ducks offense. It makes sense to graduate and move onto a place where he can dedicate himself to getting his mechanics down pat and fixing his accuracy issues.
And the way Oregon fans are reacting to the news, Thomas might also have been looking over his shoulder, as Ducks fans seem ready to embrace the Bryan Bennett era.
Bennett came in earlier this season and played extremely well against Arizona State to lead them back to a big early victory, and then ran all over Colorado in an easy rout. That game seemed to prove that it doesn't really matter who you plug into the Oregon offense at quarterback, the Ducks would find a way to produce regardless, or at the very least find a way to beat the best of the conference regardless of who got thrown out there.
Watching Bennett, it's hard to get a feel for his passing game, because he tends to like to run the ball more, making him a bit of the opposite of Thomas, who loved to uncork throws but never really got a feel for the run game. Bennett certainly reminds you more of Masoli, who did a great job running for first downs and fooling defenses into hitting the running back.
Bennett has a big arm, but his accuracy issues (only around a 50% completion rate when he played) and inability to go through his progressions kept him behind Thomas in the lineup for this season. Now he'll get his chance to prove he should've been in there sooner.
Oregon might still be very good. They return a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and should have some good recruits starting to see the field on both sides. But the list of teams that replace both their starting quarterback and running back and go onto contend for national championships, much less conference championships is pretty short.
The last time Oregon replaced both a starting running back and a starting quarterback in the rotation was 2008, when Jeremiah Masoli and Jeremiah Johnson took over for Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart. The Ducks offense generally didn't change that much thanks partly to All-American Max Unger leading the way up front, but it stuttered against the top defenses in the conference, and Oregon dropped three games along the way. A similar scenario could happen here, with Oregon dropping one or two games they shouldn't have dropped. The clock likely turns to 2013 for the Ducks to start contending for a BCS title once more.
Oregon can get back to Pasadena, but USC has to feel pretty good about their chances to win their head-to-head matchups now and particularly the one in Los Angeles. And other Pac-12 North teams must be taking note, because they know the best time to try and slay the beast is when he's recuperating his losses. A lot of teams will be ready to pounce on the Ducks after the way they've been drubbed by that offense three years straight.
Chip Kelly's tallest task since his first games as Oregon head coach awaits, as he begins transitioning from era of Duck football to the next.
SB Nation Reaction
As those of you around here know, I was one of the biggest defenders of Thomas. I think there are few QBs in the country that can run Oregon's offense as effectively as Thomas. Yeah, he has some work to do mechanically, but Thomas is great under pressure, is a spectacular decision-maker, and led Oregon to the best two-year stretch in school history. He also leaves Oregon as the all-time leader in touchdown passes, despite only starting for two season.
With Thomas at the helm, Oregon was a top 5 team heading into next season. Without him, we get to see what Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariotta will do. Both are supremely talented athletes, and it will be exciting to see what they can do. But losing both LaMichael James and Darron Thomas to the draft is a big blow for the team. These two were the leaders of the Oregon offense, and took the team to levels we have never seen.