Last season, the Oregon Ducks sported one of the top offenses in the nation, anchored by the explosive talents of running back LaMichael James. In 2011, Oregon finished fifth in the country in rushing yards per game at nearly 300 yards per game (299.2), and they were led by James who rushed for 1,805 yards and scored 20 total touchdowns. He averaged around 7.3 yards per carry, and was arguably one of the most explosive players in the history of the Oregon program. With James leaving for the NFL, getting drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round, the Ducks will be looking to replace their star back. Luckily for them, the cupboard is far from bare in the Oregon backfield and the Ducks will have plenty of talent to choose from to drive their vaunted “Blur” offense. So who will step up?
Barner was the change-of-pace back for James last season and even took over as the feature back when James suffered an injury for a couple of games. He’s never carried the load as the main-back for more than a few games, however, but is already a star in Eugene, ranking 14th on Oregon’s all-time rushing list. He sits just 1,061 yards behind Jonathan Stewart for third on the all-time list, a total he will likely pass by the time the Ducks take on USC in November. If he can reach 1,456 yards on the season, Barner will overtake Derek Loville and become the No. 2 rusher in program history. Nobody can question Barner’s talent and some NFL scouts rate him as a better NFL prospect than James. The only question mark on Barner is whether or not he will be able to carry the ball 25 times a game for an entire season.
While James was the long-term explosive element to the Oregon offense, Thomas burst onto the scene last season as the explosive answer of the future. He broke out in the Ducks’ Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, rushing for 155 yards and two touchdowns on just two carries. That explosive performance on a national stage made sure that Thomas wouldn’t be a surprise coming into 2012. He has the ability to be even more explosive than the departed James and will try and follow up a good freshman campaign. Last season, Thomas rushed for 595 yards on just 55 carries and made 46 receptions for 605 yards. He was also a weapon in the return game, gaining 1,035 yards for a total of 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 total touchdowns. Durability is the biggest question for Thomas, even more so than Barner, after seeing limited reps last year. This season, Thomas will likely serve as the change-up option at running back, getting 5-10 carries per game and get around 20 touches per game.
Marshall is an incoming freshman for 2012 and is widely regarded as the top high school running back on the West Coast. Marshall will be asked to contribute right away this fall, and will come in already as big as anyone on the running back depth chart. He is lauded by scouts for his acceleration, vision, and ability to change direction on a dime. He was used in high school on the majority of his team’s sweep plays, patiently setting up blocks before bursting through a hole. The 5-foot-10, 195 pound back will be key to the Ducks success, and his development will be vital Oregon’s offense, especially in the event that Barner or Thomas get hurt.
The Ducks also sport some emergency backs in case they are needed. Josh Huff, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound wide receiver played nearly every position in high school, and with his history of drops at receiver, he could get called on to fill in at running back if absolutely needed. Additionally, Ayele Ford, a 5-foot-7, 180-pound runner, proved a capable option in mop-up duty last season, rushing for 176 yards and two touchdowns in 2011.
While the Ducks don’t enjoy the same depth at running back that they’ve had in the past, there will not be any drop off in talent. Kenjon Barner will be the thunder in the Ducks’ running game while De’Anthony Thomas will be the lightning providing the explosive spark, and the young Byron Marshall will spell relief in the event Thunder or Lightning blows a tire. With the talent taking hand offs in the Oregon running game, there’s no reason to think they won’t lead the Pac-12, and be among the nation’s best, in rushing once again in 2012.
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