Who says nothing important happens in the first quarter? The Oregon Ducks have dispelled that notion over and over in the last few seasons, and the 2013 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was no exception.
If you weren’t watching the opening kickoff, you missed one of the biggest plays of the game: sophomore De’Anthony Thomas turned on the jets and ran it back 94 yards for a touchdown.
Thomas, dubbed “The Fastest Man in Football” by Sports Illustrated earlier this season, reportedly reached 26.6 mph on his kickoff return run. By comparison, Florida State‘s Lonnie Pryor, named the Discover Orange Bowl MVP thanks to his breakaway runs, only reached 18 mph, according to the ESPN broadcast – and Pryor’s speed was on a completely different level than anyone else on the field in that game.
The Ducks’ rusher/receiver/returner finished with 194 all purpose yards, most of them (147) in the first half. A few plays after his big kickoff return, Thomas caught a Marcus Mariota pass for a 23-yard touchdown, his second of the night.
That’s essentially Thomas’ role with the Ducks: break off a few big scoring plays early, and then take it easy as Oregon coasts to a big win. With his small stature (5’9″, 176 lbs.), Thomas has been compared both to a thoroughbred racehorse and a sports car – built for speed, not necessarily for endurance.
Oregon’s leading rusher and workhorse, senior Kenjon Barner, carried the ball 31 times against Kansas State yet accumulated fewer yards than Thomas did on eight total touches (two rushes, two returns, four catches).
Barner actually had more carries in this year’s Fiesta Bowl than Thomas did in the team’s last two BCS appearances combined. Last year in the Rose Bowl, Thomas had two carries and four receptions for 189 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run. He also averaged 25 yards per kick return, with five returns for 125 yards, including a long of 46.
With his speed and big play ability, Thomas is a fun player to watch; fans just don’t get to see much of him. Next season will be Thomas’ first without Barner and LaMichael James handling the majority of the carries, but it might not be a wise idea to try to significantly increase the speedster’s workload.
One of the reasons he’s been so successful is because his limited carries have cut down on the risk of injury and typical wear-and-tear. For two seasons, the Ducks have trotted him out to make a few big statement plays each game, allowing Thomas’ legs to stay fresh for the majority of his career.
Instead of finally taking over the role of featured back, getting a considerably larger share of the carries could be detrimental to Thomas’ numbers and his ability to create big plays for his team.
It will be interesting to see how he fits into the Ducks’ offense next season, especially with, presumably, a new head coach, but it’s been exciting to see him take off in the team’s last two BCS bowls. Thomas might get fewer touches than almost any other big name player in the game, but he sure makes each one of them count.