Craig Loper, EDN Sports
With spring practice for the Ducks well under way, position battles are heating up; none more so than the battle for quarterback. With Bryan Bennet and Marcus Mariota sharing reps trying to impress head coach Chip Kelly and the other offensive coaches, one will undoubtedly emerge by fall camp as the clear starter.
However, it may have been the quarterback before them that helped to develop the competiveness and strive for excellence that Bennet and Mariota work for each practice.
This past off-season Darron Thomas surprised nearly all of us when he decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft. His decision to do so was questioned and analyzed from nearly all angles. Critics said he was leaving too early “with no chance of playing in the NFL”, while some Oregon fans claimed “we didn’t need him”.
Regardless of where Thomas ends up after the NFL draft this April, or your opinion of him, his short time at Oregon created a legacy that is too great to go unnoticed.
On September 20, 2008 in Autzen Stadium, Duck fans first gained a glimpse of the true-freshman Thomas in a game versus Boise State. Forced to pull his redshirt due to quarterback injuries in the game, Thomas stepped in as a relative unknown, with the complex Oregon offense in his hands.
Thomas’ response? A nearly perfect second half in which he and the Ducks came close to erasing a 24-point fourth-quarter deficit. Thomas finished the game 13-of-25 passing with 210 yards through the air and three touchdowns, but the Ducks would ultimately lose 37-32.
However, Thomas’ performance would have Eugene buzzing with the possibility of another Dennis Dixon at quarterback. Thomas would finish the 2008 season making appearances in special situations for the Oregon offense and an impressive trick play in the Ducks’ 65-38 Civil War blowout.
After a redshirt season backing up Jeremiah Masoli and Nate Costa in 2009, Thomas battled Costa for the starting job in 2010 in fall camp following Masoli’s eventual release from the team. After being named the starter, Thomas never looked back.
The quarterback position may have been the biggest question mark going into 2010, but Thomas would quickly erase all doubt by leading the Ducks to a 12-0 regular season, including wins over No. 9 Stanford and No. 24 USC, and Oregon’s first ever appearance in the national championship.
While LaMichael James garnered most of the awards and attention, Thomas quietly and efficiently ran the Ducks’ offense, finishing the season completing 61.5 percent of his passes, 2,881 yards through the air, and 35 total touchdowns, including five rushing. Arguably the greatest season by an Oregon quarterback in school history, Thomas would return in 2011 unquestioned and determined to lead the Ducks to another BCS game.
And that he would.
After an off-season with a national championship loss on their mind, the Ducks entered 2011 season ranked No. 3 in the country, opening in tremendous fashion in a game versus No. 4 LSU at Cowboys stadium in Arlington, TX.
Hopes at another national championship run were jarred after losing the season opener, but Thomas and the Ducks wouldn’t dwell on it for long.
Thomas would ultimately lead the Ducks to a third-straight conference championship in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game versus UCLA. The win would give the Ducks another Rose bowl berth, and a shot to redeem themselves from the 2009 season (when they lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl).
Facing off against the Big Ten conference champion, Wisconsin, Thomas and the Ducks would answer the prayers of Oregon fans everywhere and finish the game with a victory, winning 45-38. It was Oregon’s first Rose bowl victory since 1917.
Thomas finished 2011 with 2,761 yards passing and 33 touchdowns, impressive numbers despite missing time due to injuries.
With only three loses in two years as a starter, 5,642 yards passing, and 66 passing touchdowns (Oregon’s all-time mark), Thomas undoubtedly deserves to be mentioned with other Oregon quarterback greats such as Joey Harrington, Dan Fouts and Akili Smith.
In just two years as a starter, Thomas was at the helm of two Oregon teams that would revolutionize the Oregon football program, forever. Although his production may be overshadowed by James and the Ducks’ elite rushing attack, Thomas methodically led an Oregon offense unlike any of us have ever seen.
Dubbed the “blur” by the national media, Thomas was a point guard leading a fast break for a team ranked dead last in time of possession. A quick strike here and a bolt of lightning there, Thomas led ten other players around him in, what seems to all of us, chaos.
Thomas not only efficiently operated Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense, he flourished in it, throwing 30 or more touchdowns in each of his two seasons, and his reputation as a scrambler was often overhyped, as he played mostly from the pocket and dissected defenses.
Despite what you may think of Thomas’ legacy at Oregon (he was involved in three off-the-field incidents), the numbers don’t lie. And the most significant number of them all is 23. That’s the number of wins Thomas led the Ducks to in his two years as a starter, making him Oregon’s all-time winningest quarterback.
So when it comes to Oregon quarterback legacy, you may think of another name first, but don’t overlook two letters: DT.