By Sam Finley, EDN

It’s amazing how one image can look worse than it is.  Take LaMichael James’ elbow injury during the Ducks’ 43-15 win against Cal.  The Oregon running back had to be carted off early in the fourth quarter after dislocating the ligament.  But until he came in after the game, the speculation was his college football career might be over.  Even James said he doesn’t want to look at any replays of what happened.

“I’ve seen it live,” joked LaMichael in a Tuesday media session. “I don’t need a picture or video to see it again, and I don’t ever want to.”

Kenjon Barner could be starting this Saturday. (Photo Credit: Rick Morgan)

James has reiterated that he will play again, and his arm is healing.

“It’s just swollen right now,” he said.  “Once the swelling goes down, I’ll be okay.”

Still, while he could play again as early as this Saturday, there is timetable for his return.

“I’lI know more when I speak to the (team) doctors,” James stated. “They’re going to make the right decision.  If I’m able to be back out there, they’ll give me the okay.  But if I’m not, then they’re going to give me the no.”

Should LaMichael James not be cleared for action this week, he believes the depth at running back will be enough to keep the Ducks moving at full speed.

“I think we’ll be fine,” he explained. “That’s why I’m not going to push my recovery and jeopardize my career here. We have some of the best running backs in the country.  Kenjon Barner is one of the best backs in the Pac-12.  De’ Anthony Thomas is a phenomenal player, and so is Tra Carson.  I’m really confident that those guys can get the job done.”

They might have to.  If anything can be proven from LaMichael’s ‘day-to-day’ status is that the future can happen sooner than you think.  Yes, James will likely play again this season, but suddenly next year’s plans could be implemented as early as the next game.

Kenjon Barner is probably going to be the starting running back in 2012 (since LMJ will likely turn pro at the end of this season). Now he might become the most experienced back on the field. Barner believes that everyone will need to raise their level of play if his best friend can’t go.

“Everybody has to step up,” he said on Thursday after the Cal game. “LaMichael is a huge part of the team as well as the running game. So if he can’t play, we’ll all have to pick our jobs up and pick up the slack.”

That would include the younger backs behind Barner. Freshman De’Anthony Thomas has shown definite flashes of brilliance, but now the Ducks may need him to grow up a little sooner.  The same can be said for Tra Carson.

Life in the world of football can be strange sometimes.  All the talk before the elbow injury was about how LaMichael James had regained his stride and might’ve gotten himself back into the Heisman Trophy race.  However, one play really can change everything.

Perhaps James comes back on Saturday.  Or he could be out a few weeks.

Keep some other things in mind, too.  It wasn’t long ago that Kenjon Barner was on the injured reserve list, and one wrong cutback or devastating hit could put him back there.  The same could happen to either De’Anthony or Tra.  You really can’t say what could happen until the ball is snapped.

That being said, what does this all mean for a critical game against Arizona State?  While I will be shocked if LaMichael James plays this Saturday, I won’t be surprised.  This is a very tough kid, and he may just get the green light.  But if he doesn’t, even though the Sun Devils have one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, I agree with his assessment that the running game will keep moving this weekend. Much like the injury he suffered last week, things really aren’t that bad.

Barner would be a starter on almost any other college team, and is not even really considered a backup at Oregon.

“We look at LaMichael as number one and Kenjon as 1a,” said Oregon head coach Chip Kelly.

De'Anthony Thomas will be taking more handoffs if LaMichael James is out against ASU. (Photo Credit: Rick Morgan)

De’Anthony has proven he can make it happen as a running back or as a receiver.  The only thing that would change in LaMichael’s absence is that he’d be taking a few more handoffs than usual.  And if he does line up at wideout, it will mean that Kenjon or Tra will be in the backfield.

In other words, you can breathe a sigh of relief if you’re a Duck fan.  But since there are two potential scenarios out there, I have to give two separate predictions.  

In either case, the Oregon defense will have an opportunity to finally get a takeaway or two against a very talented, but mistake prone Arizona State offense.  On the flipside, and as stated earlier, ASU has a great defense and could give the Oregon offense a problem or two (LaMichael or no).

But in both situations, I see the Ducks coming out ahead. The only difference will be in the amount of scoring.  With that, here’s my prediction with LaMichael in the game:  Oregon 42, ASU 24.  Without him?  Let’s say Oregon 38, ASU 24.

In either case, it’s going to be a wild weekend, especially with ESPN GameDay in town. 
So enjoy every moment, no matter what happens.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

Sam Finley has been the EDN sports editor since June 2011.  Send him your feedback or story ideas to: sam.finley@eugenedailynews.com