Before LaMichael James arrived in Eugene, the Oregon Ducks were a highly exciting team that had tasted the fruits of success on occasion after occasion, only to come up short just as much. Oregon was fun to watch and an intriguing curiosity to the palette of college football watchers over from the East Coast, but they were considered inconsequential in the grand scheme of things compared to a program like USC's.
Since James became the starting tailback, Oregon has lost a grand total of two conference games, won two Pac-10 championships and are on the verge of winning another. Quite a run, huh?
Despite all the hype heaped on Andrew Luck at Stanford and Matt Barkley at USC, since LaMichael James took over as Oregon's tailback the Ducks are the ones running the show with a 31-5 record. And you wonder if Oregon will drop off after this season if (as expected) James leaves.
In many ways, LaMichael was the perfect recruit for Chip Kelly. He was the right blend of speed and quickness in the open field, matched with the toughness and cutting once he hit the holes. James made Oregon really tough to stop because he was hard to take out of a game, and he was hard to take down once he was in it.
James was the barometer for Oregon's offense when he played a full game. When he was breaking and making plays, the Ducks were tough to beat. James had four 200+ yard games at Oregon (at Arizona and vs. Cal in 2010; at USC and vs. Stanford in 2009, so no slouches), and the Ducks hit 50 points on three of those occasions. When he hit 150-plus yards, Oregon was 9-0. When he hit 100-plus yards, the Ducks were 22-1. Conversely, Oregon's last four losses have occurred when James went under 100 yards. Correlation, causation, whatever, Oregon has been better the better James has been.
Kenjon Barner can definitely look like LaMichael at times, although he's more of a hit the hole back rather than a guy who can grind it out game after game. De'Anthony Thomas is a speed demon, but he struggles to be the feature back and still struggles with decision-making when hitting the holes. It'll be tough to replace him, even if Tra Carson proves to be a power option.
It's been a heck of a run, and LaMichael has been running the show as much as anyone else. Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli might be the managers of Kelly's up-tempo spread, but LaMichael is the motor, and he made Oregon hum like a Rolls Royce.