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Oregon's backfield had plenty of question marks to open the season, but were predicted to coast through the first part of their schedule and did not disappoint. Halfway through the season, it's time to check up on Oregon's stable of running backs as they prepare for the stretch run.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota had fairly large shoes to fill this last postseason as he needed to at least partially replace the winningest quarterback in school history in Darron Thomas. To this point, Mariota has performed as advertised, posting the second best QB rating in the conference halfway through the season. The other question mark plaguing Oregon's preseason writeups revolved around Kenjon Barner replacing or mimicking LaMichael James, arguably the best player to ever wear one of Oregon's jerseys.
Barner is obviously a step down from LaMichael James, so coming into the season, many critics marked Oregon down for losing James to the draft. Now that we've gotten to see Barner as an every down back, it's pretty obvious that he was ready to take on the load without LaMichael; so far, Barner is averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and has 10 all-purpose touchdowns. Barner's numbers say that he's had a great season, but his play has been relatively quiet despite him posting 25% of Oregon's scoring output. For comparison, LaMichael James had 29% of Oregon's scoring output in 2010.
If Barner was expected to carry the load, De'Anthony Thomas was expected to rev the engine. Thomas came into the season with everyone knowing just how electric of a playmaker he was, and in the early-going, he lived up to expectations and was easily the best player in college football for those three weeks. In those first games, Thomas was unstoppable, and even the chance of him getting the ball forced everyone to sit on the edge of their seats as they waited for DAT to somehow break into the open and zoom by tacklers on the way to the endzone.
After those games, a decline in Thomas's production was expected as competition increased, but a sharp drop-off would catch any by surprise. After averaging nearly 20 yards per carry, and 15 yards per catch, De'Anthony has returned to earth, averaging a more pedestrian five yards per carry, and six yards per catch in conference play. What's even more disappointing is the fact that Thomas has touched the ball twice as many times in conference game than he did in the non-conference games, and hasn't had many of those super-explosive plays that defined De'Anthony's previous success. While Oregon's star has dropped in performance, the rest of the offense has picked up the slack for the time being. By that logic, it's obvious to see that defenses have adjusted to De'Anthony at the expense of covering the numerous weapons Oregon boasts outside of Thomas.
Depth was also a question to start the season at running back. With Barner moving up to the starting role, and De'Anthony being limited as an interior back, it appeared as if an injury to Barner would nearly cripple the historically dominant interior running game Oregon loves to have. Way back when, Tra Carson was the next guy up after Barner, and when he transferred out, it catapulted highly touted freshman Byron Marshall to the two-deep. Marshall wasn't very impressive in his debut, and in particular, had trouble running the inside zone play. While struggling to run a team's primary play may raise a red flag in other programs, Marshall followed his predecessors LaMichael and Kenjon, who both had their struggles with the inside zone as well, and stuck with it. Marshall improved rapidly, showing ever increasing confidence as the season presses on. Marshall will be at the center of the next-generation Oregon backfield, and while he would be a major step down from Barner at the moment, his future is bright at Oregon.
So while Marshall is still developing, the depth chart for the running back position looked slightly bleak to start the season. Enter Colt Lyerla, and Oregon suddenly has a fairly deep backfield. With Lyerla's installation into the offense, not only does the depth improve, it also improves the unit's overall strength, and ability to convert in short yardage situations. Lyerla is one of the conference's premier athletes, and he too, has plenty of potential to fill into as he develops.
In summary, the Duck backfield has performed as advertised, and has added to Oregon's skill palette as well. For the time being, the Oregon running backs have done exactly what they were expected to do, and then some.