Position Preview: Running Backs

Before you read this, I’m going to recommend that you, fellow Duck fans, stop, close your eyes and take a deep breath. What you’re about to read may cause increased heart rate, rapid breathing and an overpowering desire to sing Mighty Oregon at the top of your lungs. If you’re a fan of an opponent on Oregon’s schedule, you can drop the Mighty Oregon part. All other symptoms apply. Oh, and may I wish you this sentiment: "Fat të mirë".

This group of returning players and newcomers may be the deepest, most talent group Oregon has ever fielded. It’s debatable, I know.

What isn’t debatable is the fact that the Ducks will once again be among the nation’s rushing leaders.

The Ducks return nearly 90 percent of their rushing productivity from 2009, when they finished sixth in the country for rushing (thanks to UO media guy Andy McNamara for doing the math). And, the guys responsible for that productivity will be running behind a group of talented, veteran offensive linemen. The Ducks shouldn't just be good running the ball, they should be great. Here’s a look at the 2010 stable:

Key Returners:

LaMichael James (5-9, 185, So.) - bio
Kenjon Barner (5-11, 180, So.) - bio
Remene Alston (5-8, 200, Sr.) - bio

Key Newcomers:

Lache Seastrunk (5-11, 187, Fr.) - bio
Dontae Williams (5-11, 198, Fr.) - bio
Andres Reed (6-0, 218, Jr.) - bio

I’m going start with Barner, because with James’ one-game suspension for off-the-field offseason issues, Barner will likely be the guy who sets the tone on Sept. 4 against New Mexico. The cornerback turned running back proved invaluable last season following LeGarrette Blount’s meltdown. Barner carried the ball 61 times for 366 yards. He only scored 3 rushing TDs, but they helped secure wins over Purdue, USC and Oregon State. Look for Barner to get more carries and catch some passes out of the backfield. As RB starter 1-B, it shouldn’t be a surprise if we see Barner top 600 yards of offensive output by season’s end.

Of course the shooting star in Oregon’s backfield is LaMichael James. He set a Pac-10 record for freshman last year, with 1,546 yards, crushing the old record by almost 300 yards. James didn’t just explode onto the college football scene, he did so with flair – showing a jaw-dropping combination of effort and elusiveness, combined with a strong will to never be stopped.

So what can we expect for an encore following James’ record-setting season? More of the same, and then some. James participated in track during the offseason, and we’re hearing that he’s a step faster than last year. He added five pounds this spring. You can bet it’s nothing but muscle. With a new QB taking snaps for the Ducks, James will be the focal point of Chip Kelly’s offense. He’s on every running back award watch list and makes most of the early Heisman discussions.

Depth will come in a variety for forms for the Ducks in 2010.

Remene Alston is the lone upper classman among running backs. "The Gentleman" provides a little power to offset the finesse of James and Barner. Injuries have hampered Alston’s career as a Duck, but he always gives the team his best effort. Alston rushed for 133 yards and 2 TDs last season, making appearances in five games. Coaches won’t acknowledge rewarding a player for their roll-player servitude, but don’t be surprised if Alston gets a solid workload in early-season games against UNM, Portland State, Arizona State and Washington State. He's earned it.

Where Alston is old reliable, Oregon’s top newcomers arrive amid great expectations. Lache Seastrunk was a 5-star All-American out of Temple, TX. He finished his high school career with 4,127 yards rushing and 52 touchdowns. The Ducks also pulled another top recruit out of Texas in the form of 4-star power back Dontae Williams. He's another power back, compared by Rivals.com to former Pitt star LeSean McCoy. Those he’s not technically a newcomer, we also should see junior Andres Reed get his first carries this season. Reed redshirted in ’09 after transferring from a JC. Reed showed some ability in rushing for 57 yards on 5 carries during the spring game.

Outlook:

With a new starting QB and limited experience at WR, Oregon’s vaunted rushing attack probably will dictate the team’s overall success. That's just fine. The Ducks know how to tote the rock as well as any team in the country – thus all the preseason excitement. Barner looked explosive during the spring game. He should dominate in the season opener against New Mexico before relinquishing the starting job to James. From there, sky’s the limit.

One question we can’t answer yet is if and when either Seastrunk and/or Williams will see the field. Whether they do or don’t redshirt will probably hinge on both players' ability to grasp the complexities of Oregon’s spread offense and inside/outside zone read scheme. At the very least, the talented freshmen will be available if injuries become an issue. If Chip thinks either player is ready, there should be opportunities for carries given Oregon’s soft OOC schedule.

How about some predictions for 2010…

There’s a good chance Chip Kelly didn’t get to fully utilize the tazer position (think multi-purpose tight end, running back, slot receiver all in one) in 2009 the way he’d hoped to prior to LGB’s suspension. If everyone stays healthy, Kelly has the personnel to go a little crazy with formations. Imagine you’re a D-coordinator watching Oregon go hyper-speed-no-huddle with Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis out wide, James and Seastrunk lined up on either side of QB Darron Thomas with Barner in motion from the slot position. With all that talent and speed, Chip and O-coordinator Mark Helfrich will take creating matchup problems to a new level.

Two words: wheel route. LMJ caught 17 passes for 168 yards last season. LaMichael caught 4 of those passes in the Rose Bowl as Oregon showed some commitment to throwing to backs out of the backfield in an attempt to keep a high-quality defense off balance. We might see the wheel route and quick swing passes become productive comfort plays for whoever gets the nod at QB.

Lastly, I think we’ll see Seastrunk become a key part of Oregon’s offense. It’s just a guess, but it’s pretty hard to keep 5-star talent off the field. Jonathan Stewart had an immediate impact, and Seastrunk might do the same.

All this talent and speed and experience lined up behind a top-tier offensive line...Oregon’s running game should keep on clicking. The QBs, of course, will have to provide some balance by the throwing the ball. At the same time, the threat of the Ducks running game should force opposing defenses to be thinking run first. It should prove to be a highly productive symbiotic relationship. So, to those opposing defenses, I wish you "good luck".

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