The biggest, okay, maybe the only, question about Oregon's offense going into the 2013 was who would replace Kenjon Barner as the Ducks' "every down" back that can handle 25 to 35 carries a game? It is only two games into the season, and the Ducks haven't been close to being tested, but it looks right now it looks like 169-pound De'Anthony might not be Oregon's "every down" back, but at least their "most frequent down" back.
Many have assumed that Thomas is too slight to carry a heavy load as a traditional running back, but in their first two games of the season, Thomas has carried the rock more than any other Duck back, including a load of 18 in their opener against Nicholls State. Thomas has only carried the ball more than 20 times once during his career, but one has to wonder, especially with expected Barner hole-filler Byron Marshall averaging barely two-yards per-carry against Virginia, if Thomas will be the Ducks' primary running back in 2013.
Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell hinted at being more than okay with that earlier this week.
"He's carrying it more than last year and he's not carrying it too much," Campbell told reporters this week. "I like that we can play a game and he only carries the ball 11 times (at Virginia), but I'd give it to him twice that many if we had to."
I'm sure the Ducks don't plan on running it up the gut with Thomas play-after-play, but as Campbell noted, it looks like they may rely on him in a more traditional format than expected, and that might be a good thing for the Ducks, and a bad thing for opponents. Thomas is still averaging nearly nine yards per-carry with a heavier load and more pressure (though against softer competition) and giving him more opportunities to carry the ball simply increases the chances for big plays.
A couple of other factors that will also play into exactly how heavy that load that Thomas carries will be the effectiveness of Marshall and the health of freshman Thomas Tyner. The 207-pound Marshall better fits the mold of a back who can shoulder 25 to 35 carries per game, but he has yet to flash the playmaking ability that made LaMichael James and Barnes so deadly in that role and struggled against Virginia. Still, Campbell isn't worried about his performance and is confident that Marshall can succeed in the role, and not only lighten the load on Thomas, but emerge as a legitimate threat himself.
"Unfortunately, often times when he had the ball, there wasn't much running room for him,'' Campbell said. "But I think Byron is a really good running back and I think in time you will see that he can make some big plays.''
For a moment in fall camp, it appeared that the Ducks might be losing their second-most electrifying running back before he even got the chance to show what he can do, when Tyner left the field with a knee injury, but the much ballyhooed back made his debut against Virginia and more than impressed. Tyner picked up 51 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries, and if he can keep that up, he might just take over Marshall's role, or simply add another dangerous weapon to spell Thomas. Tyner could add perfect balance to backfield, as he has Marshall's size, but also has Thomas' speed.
The biggest question mark of the entire situation is whether or not the slight Thomas can shoulder the load and avoid injury, and despite the perpetual presence of the possibility, Thomas has never shown any sign of struggling with injury throughout his career. Even though he is 169, Thomas regularly delivers the blow on his inside runs and generally avoids getting hit dead on because of his fleetness of foot. Even when teams try to beat him up, like Oregon State last year, Thomas holds up and follows in the footsteps of smaller running backs like LaMichael James and former Beaver Jacquizz Rodgers who can handle punishment despite their lack of size.
And now, like those two backs before him, Thomas looks like he is going to excel in a feature back role.