EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 10: De'Anthony Thomas #6 of the Oregon Ducks cruns for a touchdown against the Nevada Wolf Pack on September 10, 2011 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Oregon has been extremely fortunate over the last decade with having great running backs, and this year is no exception. From Maurice Morris, Onterrio Smith, Whitehead, Jeremiah Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, until now has been filled with running backs who churned up a lot of yards in pro style offenses and the spread we have all come to love. Gary Campbell has obviously done a great job over the years developing talent.
The key departure from last year is obviously LaMichael James, debatably the greatest Oregon football player ever. The Ducks lose a running back who took 247 carries, had 1805 rushing yards, and 18 touchdowns. Pretty remarkable. Tra Carson, a bigger back who is known in the game threads here as the human victory cigar, transferred out to be closer to family and possibly due to playing time.
Before we get to all the great parts about the running backs I'd like to address the weakness. The biggest concern heading in to the next season is depth. LaMichael James could take a lot of carries last year along with Kenjon Barner, but Barner is the only back this year that I would feel comfortable taking over 15 carries a game. If Barner gets hurt, which he has a history of, it could create a lot of issues. De'Anthony Thomas is perfect getting moved around and creating mismatches while also getting running back carries, him being forced to take 15 or more carries a game isn't the best way to use him, nor is giving Byron Marshall tons of carries a game getting equal time with Thomas. (At least we haven't seen anything to the contrary)
Here's the positive: Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are really, really, good. Both are near the top in terms of adjusted POE, a statistic used to estimate the value of a running back above the "average" running back. Barner doesn't have the size or maybe straight-line speed that James possessed, but he has fluidity for cutbacks and making people missed that is impressive. Where LaMichael James puts his foot in the ground and explodes through the hole he pushes his way through people and in to open space. Kenjon finds the holes and runs like he's on roller skates, somehow morphing in the holes around defenders.
De'Anthony Thomas is a really good complement to Kenjon as Thomas is the most dangerous player in open space this side of the Mississippi. Thomas has shown that on a couple times a game he can run between the tackles. Thomas is most dangerous though as a second option on swing passes if a team cheats to Barner, or when he is motioned out and somehow a linebacker ends up covering him. Thomas' greatest trait is not that he runs faster than everybody else, it is how he keeps his speed high while changing directions. When many players cut to avoid one defender, they often get caught from behind because they have to slow down and then accelerate again, but Thomas is able to avoid slowing down.
Bryon Marshall is an exciting freshman running back out of Valley Christian High School in California. He was 127 in the ESPNU 150 and comes in at 5'10" 195, and was a 4-star recruit. After looking at his high school highlights his greatest strength is running in traffic. He's very elusive in tight spaces. Marshall could be seeing a lot of carries over the course of the season, especially early, to help balance the workload.
Ayele Forde is a running back who I am personally a fan of. He always gets yards, a real north-south runner. Often running backs will try to make too many cuts and end up never getting back to the line of scrimmage. Not Forde. He doesn't have straight-line speed, but he is consistent. He moved piles in the spring game. He reminds me a little of Andre Crenshaw in that both didn't see a ton of playing time, nor did they have elite speed, but they consistently got chunks of yards whenever they carried the football. Kenny Bassett is the final running back on the depth chart and we will get to see plenty of him the first few games of the season.
The quarterbacks this year also provide a wrinkle to the rushing attack this year. Darron Thomas wasn't the greatest of runners but could pick up yards, and his senior year he had 56 carries. With either Mariota or Bennett at the helm the quarterback will be a bigger running threat. Mariota has good speed while Bennett cuts better in space and would probably break tackles better, something that he wasn't able to exhibit in the spring game. Bennett last year had as many rushing yards as Darron Thomas in less than half the carries.
The running backs at Oregon are incredibly talented and the only question mark is if they can stay healthy throughout the course of the season. The passing attack will be better this year and we will probably see a greater number of pass plays called compared to last year, so the total number of carries will be reduced, but the rushing attack will still be the featured part of the offense. Since Chip Kelly has been at Oregon the Ducks have put up video game rushing numbers. Barner and Thomas are going to be featured equally, albeit in different ways, and when we throw in the known abilities of Forde and the exciting unknown of Byron Marshall it is clear that the rich Oregon history of having great running backs will continue for at least one more year.