During Chip Kelly‘s tenure as head coach of the Oregon Ducks, he utilized a “next man up” philosophy. When LaMichael James left Eugene, he simply plugged in Kenjon Barner and kept on rolling. However, Kelly is gone to the NFL now, and there are serious questions about the “next” guys at running back, so could Mark Helfrich use a running back by committee approach?
If the depth chart simply flowed straight and starting went to the next oldest guy, then De’Anthony Thomas would be taking over the starting duties in the backfield. DAT has been spectacular since he broke onto the scene as a freshman in the Rose Bowl against the Wisconsin Badgers and has a unique playmaking ability that makes him a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball.
But is Thomas sturdy enough to hold up under the rigors of being the every-down running back? Most of his success has come when he’s been able to get to the edge and make defenders miss in space. Will having DAT pound the ball inside the tackles, as Oregon running backs are often called on to do, do anybody any good?
Chances are, the dings he takes from those inside runs will cost him the ability to be as dynamic on the perimeter and in the return game as he is now. The best place for him is as a weapon that gets moved all over the field (in the backfield, in the slot, out wide and in motion) to take advantage of defensive mismatches and as a change-of-pace back.
But if DAT can’t carry the load as the primary starter, will Byron Marshall fare better? Marshall provided some excellent reps in relief of Barner in 2012 during his freshman season, rushing for 447 yards on 87 attempts with four touchdowns. He’s built sturdier than Thomas is at 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds, with a tough running style that can churn through yardage between the tackles.
He flashed the ability to play that role regularly in Barner’s absence, but it was in very small sample sizes. He recorded double digit carries in just three games (all blowout wins in garbage time) and recorded three carries or less four times, while not playing in two other games. The experience may not be there for Marshall to go from spot-carries to full-time back next fall.
Then there’s the incoming freshman and star of the Ducks’ 2013 recruiting class Thomas Tyner. The Oregon prep star comes to Eugene with plenty of hype as he has the speed and playmaking ability to be the next De’Anthony Thomas while playing with the original De’Anthony Thomas.
But the questions are there for the freshman as well. Can he hold up to the rigors of big-time Pac 12 college football? Will he be able to absorb the offense in just over a month in August? Is a history of hamstring issues going to to affect his carries?
There’s just so much uncertainty about the ability of any one candidate to step up and take over the position that Mark Helfrich will likely best be served using a committee approach. Using Thomas as the outside threat, Marshall as the inside grinder and Tyner as the freshman wildcard will keep defenses on their toes and give Oregon plenty of opportunities to press an advantageous mismatch.
It isn’t the way Oregon has done it in the recent past, but things are changing in Eugene. New head coach means a twist on the offensive philosophy that could result in a new way of handling their talented backfield. Will Oregon still find success without a primary, go-to running back in 2013?