With the loss of LaMichael James, it was the assumption of many that De'Anthony Thomas would see even more of a featured role in the Oregon offense. The leading receiver in 2011, Thomas was electric every time he touched the ball, and the thought of the Black Momba getting 15-20 touches a game made Duck fans giggle with glee, and Heisman voters anticipate a special season.
That hasn't happened, at least not yet.
Before jumping to any conclusions about his output, I went back and looked at DAT's 2011 stats: he amassed 55 rushes, and caught 46 passes, good for 101 total offensive plays. Now, this isn't accounting for his kickoff return stats, including his two return touchdowns and his near-third against washington, but the opposing strategy in 2012 of kicking away from Thomas has all but eliminated that aspect of his game. So for now, we'll just focus on the pure offense in his game. 101 plays in 14 games? 7.2 touches per game, with no discernable pattern. For instance, Thomas had eleven touches in the blowout of Missouri State, but only two in the Pac-12 Championship against UCLA. Just a freshman getting freshman touches, you say? Down on the depth chart behind LMJ and KJB, you say? The focal point of a passing game that was erratic for most of the season, you say? Well, let's fast forward to 2012; LaMike is gone, the Ducks have a more accurate thrower
under five yards behind center, and Thomas is a year wiser and a year stronger.
So far in 2012, De'Anthony Thomas has 61 offensive touches in six games, good for just over ten per game. Couple these numbers with the near-lack of return action, and we're seeing one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in college football get relatively few chances to shine. This is not to say that Thomas isn't still making an impact; his nine touchdowns rank second on the team behind Kenjon Barner, and he's scoring almost a point per offensive touch. But compared to the lofty expectations many Duck fans, myself included, had for Thomas, it's been a relatively quiet first half of the season. And yet despite De'Anthony being somewhat underused, the Oregon offense is still moving to the tune of 47.7 points per game. So how's it happening?
First, the Oregon offense is deeper than it ever has been under Chip Kelly; with so many players playing at a high level, touches are harder to come by. In 2011, De'Anthony Thomas accounted for 19% of all passes caught by Oregon receivers, and was one of only four players to catch 9% or more of the total passes caught, Lavasier Tuinei, Josh Huff, and David Paulson being the other three. This year, seven players have caught 9% or more each: Thomas, Bralon Addison, Keanon Lowe, Colt Lyerla, Kenjon Barner, Dwayne Stanford, and Daryle Hawkins. In 2011, De'Anthony Thomas was forced to step up as a receiver because there were few better options; that simply isn't the case this year.
The Oregon offense is not only deeper, but more balanced than they were a year ago. While the playcalling ratio is essentially the same (1.6 runs for every pass attemped), Marcus Mariota's accuracy has shifted the ratio of runs per completion towards the pass (2.44, down from 2.66 a year ago). And though rushes per game are currently up (52, up from 45), many of those carries have come in the second half of blowouts, which explains why Byron Marshall is second on the team in carries through six games. Third in carries so far this season? Marcus Mariota, who accounts for 14% of the team's carries. By comparison, Darron Thomas had 9% of the team's carries in 2011, and 14% in 2010. So with more receivers catching, and more quarterback rushing, it could be that De'Anthony Thomas has simply gotten lost in the shuffle. But I think it's more than that.
When you look at the play-by-play of Oregon's games this season, a pattern in De'Anthony Thomas' use begins to emerge. As a running back, Thomas is utilized in two key ways: first, at the end of drives, when the opposing defense is on their heels and sucking wind. Against washington, Thomas got two carries in the first quarter, a ten yard rush on the seventh play of the opening drive, and a 16 yard TD run on the eighth play of drive #2. Against Fresno State, DAT's only rush of the first quarter came after the Ducks moved 25 yards in three plays. The result of that run? a 39 yard touchdown. To unleash DAT on a gassed unit, when the Oregon offense is in rhythm, almost seems unfair. Second, he has gotten 1-2 drives per game as the feature back, always in the second quarter. Kenjon Barner is averaging nearly 20 carries per game; Chip Kelly is choosing to use those second quarter drives to get Barner a rest, and to get a look at how the opposing defense handles DAT. And so far, there hasn't been a game where giving Thomas heavy carries in the second half has been prudent. The only games where those drives have been effective were Arkansas State and Fresno State, both first half blowouts. And the rest of the season? DAT's drives have produced all of three points. With Chip Kelly's propensity for attacking weak aspects of the opponent's defense, it isn't a stretch to think that the coaching staff looked at the stats and decided that Thomas as an every-down back just wasn't the best formula for success. And they'd be right.
With the current depth of the offense, Chip Kelly sees to employ De'Anthony Thomas in what he feels is the most effective role: the knockout blow, best employed in controlled doses for maximum potency. Will there be a point in Thomas' Oregon career where he becomes the main event, touching the ball 20-25 times a game and legitimately entering into the Heisman conversation? Perhaps. For now however, he's the turbocharger; he doesn't make the machine run, he simply takes a good thing and makes it great.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As user doomsdaymachine pointed out in the comments, I had forgotten that De'Anthony Thomas was held out of much of the Pac-12 Championship with an injury, which would explain his two touches. Using other data to make my point, he only had six offensive touches in the Rose Bowl. Carry on.