I don't have any qualms expressing my opinion that De'Anthony Thomas choosing to leave Oregon early was a mistake. My opinion has since changed. Sure, he made some explosive plays. He sparked a near miracle comeback against USC in 2011. He played a key role, possibly the biggest, in Oregon's Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin in 2012. He set the tone for Oregon in a dominant Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State in 2013, but he was never much more than a return specialist for the Ducks. However, that just may be the most valuable aspect about Thomas as he makes the next step to the NFL.
Outside of special teams, Thomas never made a true impact at Oregon in my opinion. He never ran for 1,000 yards. He was never the true starting running back. He was always just a solid option when LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner needed a play or two to catch their breath. His best season at Oregon was in 2012 when he ran for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns, but only carried the ball 92 times. LaMichael James had more touches in a single season twice in his three years with the Ducks than Thomas did in his three years at Oregon combined. He was simply just never going to be a true running back.
But where he was special was fittingly on special teams. Even if he didn't field a punt or kickoff, Thomas struck fear into the hearts of the opposition when he would go back to return a kick. Because you knew that every single time he touched the ball, no matter what the protection, he was gunning for the end zone.
Remember this play against USC in 2011? The Trojans had just taken a 38-14 lead with 3:28 left in the third quarter. With this return, Thomas lit a fire under the Ducks that nearly led to one of the greatest comebacks in recent memory.
How about this one in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl? I watched this happen live from the press box, and my jaw literally dropped when I saw it unfold. Sure the game was close at times, but from that moment on, it seemed as if Oregon had total control of the game.
This is what his role will be in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs. He now has a chance to join company with the likes of Dante Hall and Devin Hester as the most lethal return specialists in history. In 2002, Hall became the first player in NFL history to return a kickoff and a punt return for a touchdown in the same game. In 2003 , Hall returned a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown in four consecutive games, an NFL record. Hall holds seven franchise records, just about all of them related to special teams.
What the Chiefs have done here is brilliant. They know exactly what kind of an impact an explosive player like Thomas can make on special teams. They've seen it before in Hall, and they see it now in Thomas. If he is willing to accept his role as a return specialist, Thomas has a chance to shine in the NFL. He can become Dante Hall 2.0.
The Chiefs are one of the more talented teams in the league. Had it not been for a three game slide after winning their first nine games last year, there's no telling how deep into the playoffs Kansas City could have gone. Maybe all the Chiefs need is a spark to light a fire with enough fuel to take them to new heights. Thomas can be that spark for the Chiefs.
Now he will probably get some touches here and there, much like he did at Oregon. The Chiefs could probably use some help in that department. Last season, Alex Smith was the team's second leading rusher behind Jamaal Charles. Whenever your quarterback, especially Alex Smith, is your second leading rusher, you could probably use some help in that department. While the Chiefs will probably get some good production out of Thomas in the backfield, they need to be aware that he's a return specialist, through and through. And special teams is exactly where he is going to make the biggest impact on the field in Kansas City. He's not going to compete with Charles anytime soon for the starting running back job in Kansas City. But on special teams, he has the opportunity to be a superstar. If Thomas knows that role and embraces it, there's no telling what he will be capable of as he brings his lethal speed to the NFL.