Darron Thomas - Page 3

Spring’s Most Heated Position Battles

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Alex Shoemaker, EDN Sports Editor

Heading into spring practices the Oregon Ducks football team will need to replace an unfortunately high number of starters from its Rose Bowl team of last season.

With former Ducks Darron Thomas and LaMichael James both juniors last year, many fans hoped that the duo would return for their senior seasons and help the Ducks compete for another national championship. James declared for the NFL Draft, as was expected, and surprisingly Thomas chose to jump ship as well.

Fortunately, head coach Chip Kelly has shown the ability to replace high-caliber offensive weapons year after year with even more explosive players. In 2009, the Ducks lost starting running back LeGarrette Blount in the opening week to a season-long suspension only to replace him with James and defensive back turned running back Kenjon Barner.

Aliotti instructs players in practice (Photo credit: Rivals)

On the defensive side, long-tenured defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has a less daunting, but still serious, task of figuring out starters for lost seniors.  But the depth chart extends deeper than just the first and second strings.

With the fast-pace play of the Ducks, particularly on defense, the ability to rotate players in without a drop-off in talent is vital. In a normal game, Oregon will rotate 20-25 players on defense.

As coach Kelly says, no job is safe. Any player can have his spot taken if another player out plays him for it. This spring will highlight those important battles.

Starting Quarterback: Bryan Bennett vs. Marcus Mariota

The obvious competition that fans have been drooling over is the battle between Bennett, who appeared in seven games including the Rose Bowl, and Mariota who redshirted last season.

This job would have been Thomas’ to lose had he not declared for the draft. Many believe that Thomas’ decision was based on competition for the starting job.

The two will split reps with the first team 50/50 during spring and summer practices until a starter is picked. With media closed to practices, only Kelly, the other coaches and players really know who is out-performing the other for the job.

Bennett should have the inside track for the job seeing as he is the only one with experience in live games and has already started a game (Colorado) in his young career.

The coaching staff has praised Mariota since his arrival on campus a year ago. That praise has only gone up since then.

“That’s what we were excited about. Each week you could see him (Mariota) starting to grasp things,” said Kelly about Mariota and his improvements this offseason. “He improved everywhere. That’s the key. There’s never one thing.”

With the Ducks playing one of, if not the, weakest non-conference schedules to start the season, it’s likely this job won’t be “won” until mid-way through the season.

However, Kelly doesn’t like continuing competitions throughout the season, like his decision to give Thomas the starting spot over Nate Costa in 2010, and rarely opens up a starting spot. There will be plenty of time to pick the right player for the job.

Third-String Running Back: Ayele Forde vs. Byron Marshall

The top-2 spots are sewn up in Barner and athlete De’Anthony Thomas who plays everything on offense from slot receiver, to the inimitable “tazer” position coach Kelly has patented.

Tra Carson’s decision to transfer has become official, withdrawing from the University of Oregon spring term to find a school closer to home. Carson would have been the clear favorite for the spot, playing in eight games last season with a breakout performance against Colorado where he rushed for 80 yards and his first and only touchdown as a Duck.

Forde, a sophomore from Victorville, CA, rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns last season, only playing in reserve action. Marshall, a powerful 4-star recruit, will have to make his impact in a short amount of time.

Forde has to show improvements in spring, and not have any drop off in play. With just summer practices to impress, there is a chance that Marshall will redshirt next season.

Wide Receiver: Replacing Huff, Tuinei, and Hoffman

Oregon receiver Josh Huff dives into the endzone for a score (Photo credit: AP)

The departure of senior Lavasier Tuinei leaves the Ducks thin at wide receiver. Josh Huff’s DUI this offseason also depletes an already uncertain unit.

Coach Kelly has yet to detail the extended timetable for Huff’s punishment, but at least a two or three game suspension is expected.

Oregon’s third starting receiver from last season, Justin Hoffman, has battled concussion complications and may have to retire early from the game of football.

While the wide receiver unit would be listed as “thin”, a better descriptor would be “inexperienced”. Oregon has a plethora of talented freshman and sophomore receivers who will compete for starting and reserve time in 2012.

Assuming that Huff will be back for the season, one of the starting spots is his after his suspension (if there is one). And to save time we’ll assume that Hoffman is unable to return to football, opening another starting spot.

De’Anthony Thomas will take over the vacancy left by Tuinei, splitting time as a wide receiver, and senior Rahsaan Vaughn will take Hoffman’s vacant spot. Vaughn has 14 catches with 184 receiving yards and a touchdown as a JUCO transfer.

A battle between six or seven players this spring will decide who goes where on the depth chart and who will be Huff’s temporary replacement.

The competition will include Devon Blackmon (a 4-star recruit out of high school), Eric Dungy (son of former NFL coach Tony Dungy) Daryle Hawkins (quarterback turned receiver), Keanon Lowe (a big receiver with good hands), Tacoi Sumler (one of the fastest players on the team), and B.J. Kelly (the favorite to replace Huff).

Eugene Daily News’ projected starting wide receivers for Oregon’s opening game will be Thomas, Vaughn and Kelly.

Starting Kicker: Rob Beard vs. Alejandro Maldonado

It’s not often that a kicking competition gets notice, but the Ducks have struggled with consistency at the position and were cost a win against USC last season due to poor special teams.

Beard, who battled injuries all of 2011, attempted just two kicks, coming through on both with a long of 30 yards. Maldonado converted just 7-of-12 filed goal attempts (58.6%) and was just 2-of-6 on attempts longer than 40 yards.

If Beard can stay healthy, the job should be his to lose. With an offense that can go for fourth downs without hesitation, a “reliable” kicker is what is most needed.

Defensive Line: Everyone Except Dion Jordan

One of the most disappointing units for the Ducks in 2011 was the defensive line that allowed 139.5 yards per game on the ground. Not all of the blame can go to the defensive line because the Ducks’ linebackers also allowed teams to run all over the defense.

Defensive tackle Ricky Heimuli tackles a UCLA player (Photo credit: AP)

Where the Ducks did play well was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Oregon defense ranked No. 6 in the country in sacks per game (3.3) ahead of teams like Alabama, USC and LSU.

The only Duck on the defensive line whose job is safe is starting DE Dion Jordan (a converted tight end) who is projected by many, including Ted Miller of ESPN, to have a breakout season for the Ducks. Taylor Hart also should be safe with one of the starting DT spots.

There will be an intense battle this spring for the remaining DT and DE jobs.

The DE favorite has to be Arik Armstead, a 5-star and former USC commit, who spurned the Trojans to join the Ducks a few months ago. As an early enrollee, Armstead is hard at work making his name known.

Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi will compete for the last spot on the defensive line. Keliikipi, with more starting experience than the other Ducks at the position should be the leading candidate for the job.

Defensive Backs: Everyone Except John Boyett

How big are Oregon’s losses in the defensive backfield? How about Anthony Gildon, Eddie Pleasant and Cliff Harris?

Besides John Boyett at FS, the other three starting positions in the Oregon secondary are completely open for the taking.

Injuries to Gildon for nearly all of last year forced the Ducks to start two freshmen, Terrence Mitchell and Troy Hill, for the majority of the 2011 season. Both cornerbacks are back and ready to defend their spot on the starting roster.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will have a legitimate shot at taking one of the starting spots, and will be the back up to see the most playing time with the other starters. Dior Mathis, James Scales III and Erick Dargan will all see playing time as reserves.

As for the replacement of Pleasant, the Ducks will turn to Avery Patterson to start and Brian Jackson to back him up. Both players will rotate playing time to keep the position fresh.

If you agree or disagree with any of the predictions and opinions expressed here, comment below.

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Oregon Ducks Football Position Battle: Quarterback

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Alex Shoemaker, EDN Sports Editor

Over the past 15 years, the Oregon Ducks have had one of the strongest collections of quarterbacks in not just the Pac-12, but in the entire nation.

That seems hard to believe considering the Ducks have been predominately a running team for what seems like as far back as we can all remember, but the Ducks used didn’t switch to the spread offense until midway through the 2000s and it was Chip Kelly in 2007 who brought the “spread option” in 2007.

It seemed all but certain that Darron Thomas would return for his senior season and lead the Ducks to another BCS run. Unfortunately, Thomas decided to take his talents to the NFL draft where in a just over a month we will find out if a team will take a chance on the often overlooked “system quarterback”.

Starting today, each week we will move to the next position breaking down the early depth chart of that position. Here is the depth at quarterback to replace Thomas.

First String: Bryan Bennett (Sophomore)

It should be pretty obvious that Bennett is first in line to replace “DT”. Bennett appeared in seven of the Ducks 13 games, including a pass attempt and completion in the Rose Bowl, and started the game against Colorado while Thomas nursed an injury.

Many even suggested benching Thomas for the young Bennett when he replaced Thomas in the second half of the Arizona State game, leading the Ducks to a 41-27 victory with his running ability.

Oregon's Bryan Bennett and Darron Thomas celebrating following the Ducks' victory over Wisconsin in the 2012 Rose Bowl. (Photo credit: Jeff Ross/Getty Images)

On the year, Bennett completed 25-of-46 passes for 369 yards with an impressive six touchdowns to zero interceptions. And while he performed well passing, it was his scrambling ability that really assured Ducks fans that they had a star in the making. Bennett rushed for a staggering 200 yards on 23 carries, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. For a little context, that’s second highest on the team to just De’Anthony Thomas.

While there is a “quarterback competition” this spring, the job is Bennett’s to lose.

Second String: Marcus Mariota (Redshirt Freshman)

There is not a single player more hyped this offseason than the fleet-footed Mariota who has fans drooling from a YouTube video showcasing his incredible athleticism.

But who is Marcus Mariota, and can he really compete for the starting job? Can a quarterback coming off a redshirt season lead a BCS caliber team?

If history teaches us anything it’s that, yes, he can lead this team to their full potential. The last Oregon QB to start after redshirting was Thomas who took the Ducks to the national championship in his first year as starter.

Obviously comparing Mariota to Thomas is premature, but just listening to Oregon coaches talk about Mariota will assure you that he has what it takes to be the leader of the huddle.

On national signing day two years ago, Oregon coach Chip Kelly raved about the Hawiian quarterback.

“He’s the perfect fit for what we do offensively,” said Kelly.

At 6’4” and 200 lbs, Mariota has the exact frame ideal for the Oregon system. His passing ability is unproven, but coach Kelly has a road track of developing and maturing quarterbacks.

From Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli and then Thomas, it is clear that Mariotta could join the elite group of Ducks quarterbacks of the past decade.

Mariota will have to battle to overtake Bennett, but he will get his chance. The spring game scheduled for late April will showcase several position battles, but none more important than quarterback.

Third String: Dustin Haines (Junior)

Oregon's Dustin Haines signals in plays for the Ducks offense. (Photo credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Eugene native Dustin Haines has spent the past few seasons on the bench after walking on to the Oregon program.

There is little to no chance of him battling for the starting spot, but if an injury were to occur to Bennett or Mariota, Haines is likely to be in line to fill in for the vacant hole(s).

Haines has completed 0-of-1 pass attempts and has eight yards rushing and 18 yards receiving in his two seasons of play.

Being more of a pro-style quarterback makes Haines less of an asset for the Ducks. He has been a significant contributor to the scout team over the past three seasons.

Others: Jake Rodrigues, Jeff Lockie

Both incoming freshman, Rodrigues and Lockie, are likely to redshirt this season. There is, however, an offchance that Rodrigues can battle for a backup role.

With the level of talent, saving a year of eligibility is the best option for Oregon and Rodrigues.

Look for another article next Tuesday as EDN breaks down the running back position for the Ducks. Who needs to step up to replace All-American LaMichael James and future star Tra Carson?

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Some Ducks Are Rising…While More Could Be Leaving

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

An amazing men’s basketball game on Saturday.  UCLA had Oregon dead in the water in the first half with a 37-24 lead.  The Ducks couldn’t hit a shot into the Willamette River, while the  Bruins’ big men dominated the paint.

Sorry Tampa Bay, no Chip for you. (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

But a funny thing happened after halftime.  Oregon came out firing on all cylinders, while UCLA’s inside presence went from titanium to tissue.  As a result, the Ducks were able to pull out  a 75-68 victory at Matt Knight Arena.

Let’s be clear about something: This was a game Oregon would not have won last year or the year before.  E.J. Singler, who led the Ducks with a career-high 26 points, considers this win a character check.

“We showed toughness and heart today,” said Singler. “Coming out and winning feels good, shows we have heart, and that means a lot.”

It means plenty for their place in the Pac-12 standings, too.  The Ducks now have a 6-2 conference record, and are tied for first place with Cal.  Still, there’s plenty of basketball to be played, and Oregon will have to be ready for every opponent.

They certainly won’t be taking Oregon State lightly when they come to town this coming Sunday. Sure, the Beavers haven’t lit up the conference this season, but they have won two in a row and have the talent to upset a lot of teams.

E.J. Singler scored a career-high 26 points on Saturday. (Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

“They can beat anyone in the conference,” Singler explained. “Their stats don’t show how good they are playing. They are playing very tough.”

Meanwhile, the Oregon women’s basketball team might be getting it together as well. After getting thumped 92-73 at USC Thursday, the Ducks came out with a much better performance  Saturday.  Thanks to the 21 points from Jasmin Holliday, they stunned UCLA 82-63 and this could change the outlook for their season.

Had they lost this one, the perception would’ve been that another subpar season was on the way in the Willamette Valley.  Instead, the Ducks now have an overall 11-9 record and are perhaps a few more wins away from some kind of postseason berth.

They still need to play with a tad more consistency, but it appears that Paul Westhead has this program on the right track.  Good for him.  His legendary status in the game of hoops aside, it is always a pleasure to talk to this man and I hope he can add to his illustrious resume while he’s in Eugene.

Of course, you can check out plenty more about the basketball scene this coming Wednesday when our weekly college hoops roundup comes out.  It should become required reading for many weeks to come.

Moving onto the football soap opera, you might need to add another name to the departing list.  First, LaMichael James declared for the NFL Draft.  Then last week, Darron Thomas decided to also take his game to the next level.  Now, rumor has it that Chip Kelly might be taking the head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

By the time you read this column, the deal could be done.  If so, it’s hard to say why Chip exactly took the job at this time.  Maybe he felt that, after three consecutive BCS Bowl appearances, that it was time for a new challenge that only the NFL could provide. (ED – According to ESPN, Chip Kelly has declined the Buccaneers offer of immense wealth and status.)

Whatever the rationale, a quick word or two for those now believing that the sky is falling. It’s important to remember that while Kelly did have unprecedented success at Oregon, the foundation for those accomplishments had been paved for many years (going back to Rich Brooks).  Second, if Chip does leave, there are a lot of high-profile coaches that will want to take his place.

This is still a team loaded with talent and the fancy facilities are about to get that much fancier. I could see Chris Petersen from Boise State taking a phone call on this one. Heck, I could even see a wild card like Jon Gruden considering coming here.

The point is that whether Kelly stays or goes, the recent successes of Oregon football are not coming to an end. They are still very much in the beginning stages. Should be fun watching this whole thing play out, either way.

But since we are talking about the NFL, let’s shift the attention to this past weekend’s playoff action.  In the NFC Championship, the New York Giants eeked out a 20-17 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers.  Why do I bring this up?  Because this game increased my admiration for one Eli Manning.

Eli Manning has been impressive during the NFC Playoffs. (Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The guy won a Super Bowl a few years ago, but people have dismissed him and claim he’ll never be as good of a quarterback as his brother Peyton.  Yet, despite the odds, he helped quietly lead the Giants to three impressive playoff victories over the Falcons, Packers, and the Niners.

In the most recent case, he was repeatedly knocked onto the muddy turf but was able to get up and throw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns.  Oh, and if the Giants win the big game against New England in a couple weeks, it would give him two Super Bowl rings to his big brother’s one.  Should that happen, wouldn’t that make Eli the better quarterback of the two? I sure think it would.

Now for a quick word on something else you could be seeing this coming Friday. As I’ve stated many times, I’m ramping up the prep coverage in this sports section.  If the logistics are worked out in the next couple of days (as I think they will), I’ll make a point of formally announcing what we’ll be bringing to the table for the remainder of the year in the weekly prep basketball roundup.  Right now, all I can say is I’m excited about the potential this new component could have and I think you will be too.

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

 

 

 

 

Drukarev: Oregon’s depth shines through departures of Darron Thomas, LaMichael James

Darron Thomas’ stunning departure from the Oregon football program has been well-chronicled. On Saturday, the two-year starter announced his intention to declare for the upcoming NFL draft rather than return to Oregon for his fifth year of eligibility. Later that night, Thomas signed with prominent NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus, and poof … Thomas’ career ended nearly as quickly as it began, all the way back in 2008 when he nearly led Oregon to a comeback victory over Boise State.

In a far less surprising development, star running back LaMichael James joined Thomas in declaring for the NFL draft earlier this month. Although James, too, had an additional year of eligibility at Oregon, nearly everyone expected he would turn pro after yet another outstanding year here in Eugene.

Many words could be written about the pro prospects of two of the finest players in program history. But I’m not here to write about the duo’s NFL future – I wish them the best, certainly, but as Oregon football moves to a new era, it’s more pertinent to focus on the reaction and fallout from Thomas’ departure and what that indicates about the future of the Duck program.

Reaction to Thomas’ and James’ draft decisions — particularly Thomas’ — has varied widely. Some Oregon fans feel Thomas is making the right decision — he’s leaving at the pinnacle of his Duck career, and has nothing else to prove — while others think another year could help his pro stock. In nearly all cases, there’s been remarkably little anxiety over the future of the program, something you’d expect following the departure of perhaps the two most important players on back-to-back-to-back BCS bowl teams.

I understand that part of the reason for the lack of concern about Oregon’s future is the varying assessment of Thomas. Despite consistently notching wins, Thomas never seemed to win over Oregon fans in the same manner predecessors Joey Harrington and Dennis Dixon did. Even this season, cries for Bryan Bennett never truly ceased.

But I happen to believe the Bennett boosters were the vocal minority. While acknowledging that Thomas was by no means a perfect quarterback, I think most Duck fans appreciated all that he brought to the program, both on and off the field.

Even with James, there’s been no real concern that his departure will cripple Oregon’s offense. As is the case with the quarterback position, Oregon fans are comforted by the depth still remaining — Kenjon Barner is a proven commodity, De’Anthony Thomas is a terror to defend, and Tra Carson and incoming freshman Byron Marshall are highly touted. Objectively, there’s little reason to think James’ departure will change the way and the efficiency at which Oregon’s offense operates.

But imagine, for a second, what would happen to the majority of college football programs if they lost the leading rusher in program history and a quarterback who went 23-3 in his starts. In 99 percent of cases, the team wouldn’t begin the following season ranked in the top-5 by many publications.

With each passing year of the Chip Kelly regime, Oregon depends on individual performance less and less and relies on a foundation of success built from the ground up even more. It’s a formula that begins with a coaching staff that’s as stable as any in the nation — the surprising defection of top recruiter Tosh Lupoi from Cal to Washington and the ensuing recruiting turmoil is just one indication of how important continuity is — and continues with a defense that rotates through the two-deep liberally, an offensive line low on NFL draft picks and star power but high on efficiency, and speed, speed and more speed.

The early defections of James and Thomas will hurt Oregon this year, to be certain. But years of coaching continuity and significant depth at nearly every position ensure Oregon will be a contender in the Pac-12 North now and for the foreseeable future. Nowadays, Oregon’s program truly is more than a one-man show.

I Honestly Planned To Talk About Something Else…

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

I didn’t think I was going to be writing much about college football for this column. Sure, I could’ve written a blurb or two about how boring the BCS championship game was, but who hasn’t? And LaMichael James made his decision to enter the NFL draft last week, so I figured there’d be a chance to now switch gears in the sporting world for at least a 14 day spell.  (The interest in this game really never really ends in this town, but sometimes you can get a slight reprieve).

Darron Thomas is the latest Duck to turn pro. (Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Seriously, I had planned to talk about the recent road sweep of the Arizona schools by the Oregon men’s basketball team.  The fact that the Ducks were able to take two in the desert could be a real boon for this bunch, and now they really could be playing for higher stakes this year.  At any other time, this would be one of my many topics for this piece.

No, I won’t be able to do that after I got a press release in my e-mail box early Saturday evening.  It stated that Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas was following James in making the jump to the NFL.

Honestly, I looked at it five times to make sure it wasn’t a practical joke. There was nothing that suggested he was going to make this move before his senior season.  But the message is genuine and you’re not alone in scratching your head.

Thomas only lost three games as a starting quarterback. (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“I came to this decision on behalf of myself and my family,” Thomas said in the statement. “I have a dream of playing in the NFL and I’m going to pursue those dreams. I would like to thank everyone in Oregon for all their support and I would thank the coaches for all their help, especially Coach (Chip) Kelly. I love my teammates and wish them the best of luck, and am confident they will continue the winning tradition that has been established. Last but not least, I thank all the Oregon fans for their help and support.”

So he’s turning pro? I won’t dispute that Thomas has the potential to play at the highest level. His numbers are comparable to some of the other signal callers who will be entering the draft, and he has only lost three games as a starter. (One of which just happened to be the national title affair).
But really?  He’s also been prone to make the errant throw from time to time.  Another year in college would’ve been beneficial for DT.  It would’ve given him time to smooth out the (although very slight) rough edges in his game.  Just look at what his coach said in the same release.
“As in all cases, we educate our players with the information we feel will be beneficial to them throughout the process but ultimately, the decision is left up to the players,” Chip Kelly stated. “I will always support Darron in his decision and want to thank him for everything he has done for this program. He obviously has played a major role in elevating Oregon football to new heights and I wish him well in the future.”

Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem like the strongest statement a guy could make in this matter.  I wouldn’t be shocked if Kelly spends between now and Wednesday (when Thomas’ decision becomes final) trying to get him to change his mind.

It’s not that losing Thomas would mean a slip in the Rose Bowl Champions’ performance for the 2012 season.  Bryan Bennett, arguably, might have a more accurate arm and he definitely has more mobility. He also showed he could fill those shoes admirably this past year when Thomas has injured, and he’ll have plenty of weapons like Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas, and Colt Lyerla to work with.

What it might mean, though, is that Darron Thomas could be rushing into something before he is ready.  As I said earlier, his numbers might be similar to some of the other top quarterbacks entering the draft.  But that’s actually a reason for him not to go.

Most of these guys will probably get picked ahead of Thomas. So while you should be surprised by his current choice, you shouldn’t be stunned if he ends up signing with a team as an undrafted free agent. Then, it’ll be about struggling just to stay on the roster.

All that said, I could be wrong about Thomas on this one and it wouldn’t be the first time.  After Jeremiah Masoli got the boot prior to the 2010 season, I insisted that Nate Costa should’ve be the starting quarterback because he was the older, steadier hand. I didn’t think Thomas, then a redshirt sophomore, was ready to lead the offense.

Boy, was I incorrect on about that.  He took the starting reins with authority and led the Ducks to two consecutive BCS Bowls during his now-ended college career.

Bryan Bennett is now the likely starter. (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Furthermore, I’ve always liked Thomas. When I did a cover story for Eugene Magazine on the Oregon offense over a year ago, he struck me as a fairly level-headed kid.  I remember when I handed him a copy of the issue, he thanked me for everything. I really do, even though I disagree with this action, wish him the best of luck. He’s going to need it.

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

Darron Thomas declares for NFL draft

Redshirt junior quarterback Darron Thomas has decided not to return for his senior season at Oregon and will declare for the NFL draft, according to the University of Oregon athletic department.

“I came to this decision on behalf of myself and my family,” Thomas said in a statement. “I have a dream of playing in the NFL and I’m going to pursue those dreams.”

Thomas, a 6-3, 215 pound native of Houston Texas, was a two-year starter who led Oregon to a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin this year and a BCS national championship berth back in 2010. He threw for 2,761 yards and an Oregon record 33 touchdowns in 2011, while also placing 11th in the country in passing efficiency (158.7).

In the same statement through the athletic department, Oregon head coach Chip Kelly expressed full support of Thomas’ decision.

“Ultimately, the decision is left up to the players,” Kelly said. “I will always support Darron in his decision and want to thank him for everything he has done for this program. He obviously has played a major role in elevating Oregon football to new heights and I wish him well in the future.”

Thomas’ 66 career touchdown passes set a new Oregon record, and he ranks as one of just three players in Pac-12 history to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in two different seasons.

“I would like to thank everyone in Oregon for all their support and I would thank the coaches for all their help, especially Coach (Chip) Kelly.” Thomas said. “I love my teammates and wish them the best of luck, and am confident they will continue the winning tradition that has been established.

“Last but not least, I thank all the Oregon fans for their help and support.”

Oregon’s 2011 football postseason awards

Team MVP: LaMichael James (1,805 yards, 18 touchdowns, 7.3 yards per carry)

The heart and soul of this team, LaMichael James leaves Oregon as perhaps its greatest player ever — and with a Rose Bowl championship to top things off. He may have missed two games with an elbow injury, but his presence both as a player and as a leader was invaluable, and he came up big time and time again.

Newcomer of the Year: De’Anthony Thomas (595 yards rushing, 605 receiving, 983 kick returning, 18 total touchdowns)

Come on, like it could be anyone else? You could even make an MVP argument for Thomas, especially after he helped put Oregon over the top in the Rose Bowl. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he’s going to be a staple of the program for years to come.

Offensive Player of the Year: Darron Thomas (2,761 yards, 62.2 percent completion, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions)

No one received more undue criticism this season than Darron Thomas. Amid all of the clamoring for Bryan Bennett to start, all Thomas did was have yet another spectacular season while playing a starring role in Oregon’s Rose Bowl victory. It might not always be pretty, but Thomas has this offense down cold, and no one is better suited to lead this team every Saturday.

Defensive player of the Year: John Boyett (108 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, 1 interception)

Generally quiet and soft-spoken with the media, Boyett was the exact opposite on the field. He led the team in tackles with 108, while also coming up with an interception and two blocked kicks. He was everywhere on the field, and never gave anything less than his best. That’s the definition of a defensive star.

Coach of the Year (Non-Chip Kelly Division): Steve Greatwood, offensive line

The Oregon offense goes nowhere without its offensive line, and Greatwood put together some of his best work this season with a line that saw three starters graduate from the 2010 squad (Jordan Holmes, Bo Thran, C.E. Kaiser). They barely missed a beat, and Oregon led the Pac-12 in rushing without a single individual on the all-conference team. Greatwood’s fingerprints are all over that success.

A game-by-game breakdown of the 2012 football schedule

Fresh off of a rousing, legacy-validating Rose Bowl victory on Monday, Oregon released its official 2012 schedule on Wednesday. The headliner, of course, is a Nov. 3 showdown at USC, which is sure to have the whole country’s attention and could have national title implications. While it’s way too early to be choosing scores for each game, it seemed appropriate to at least break down the schedule in brief form while making some bold (and at times loony) predictions:

Sept. 1: vs. Arkansas State

I was going to make a joke about this being the exact opposite of the 2011 season opening LSU showdown in Dallas, but Arkansas State was actually quite competent in the Sun Belt Conference this year at 10-2, and is set to play in the storied GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 8 against Northern Illinois. Former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was also hired as head coach back in December, and there have been rumblings that Tigers running back Michael Dyer might join him. So basically, this won’t end up being a joke game like New Mexico two years ago. Oregon is still at home, though, and should win handily.

Bold prediction: Darron Thomas comes out of the gates firing with five touchdown passes. Fans still clamor for Bryan Bennett to replace him.

Sept. 8 vs. Fresno State

Now THIS should be a blowout. Fresno State went 4-9 in 2011, and coming into Autzen Stadium in the second week of the season is not a recipe for success.

Bold prediction: When Oregon takes a 38-3 lead in the second quarter, restless fans will start to wish the Ducks had scheduled at least one decent non-conference opponent.

Sept. 15 vs. Tennessee Tech

Be honest: you didn’t know Tennessee Tech existed before seeing this schedule. I know I didn’t. It would be nice if the Ducks had a bit more of a test before beginning conference play, but I suppose it’s also good to be able to chalk up a win well before the game is played.

Bold prediction: De’Anthony Thomas will embarrass an overmatched Tennessee Tech defender in much the same way as he did here:

Sept. 22 vs. Arizona

Rich Rodriguez and Chip Kelly meet for the first time here, as the schedule finally starts to get interesting. Things can only look up for the Wildcats after 2011′s disastrous 4-8 showing, but the departure of Nick Foles pretty much ensures that Arizona won’t be able to keep up with the Ducks at Autzen Stadium.

Bold prediction: We, the media, will spend an inordinate amount of time talking about this coaching matchup in order to cover up the fact that the game isn’t really that interesting.

Sept. 29 at Washington State (in Seattle)

Wow, four straight home games before Oregon finally hits the road in this game. That seems a little strange, no? Anyway, Mike Leach makes his big-game debut here as Washington State’s new head coach. Personally, I think that was a big time hire (even if Leach is a little bit crazy), one that might finally put the Cougars on the map as a threat in the conference. Still, 2012 will likely be a feeling out period for Leach, and there’s no reason to believe his team will be able to keep up with an Oregon team that should be firing on all cylinders by that time.

Bold prediction: (See Arizona prediction above)

Oct. 6 vs. Washington

Wouldn’t it have been funny if Washington had kept defensive coordinator Nick Holt after that absurd 67-56 loss in the Alamo Bowl to Baylor? It would have pretty much guaranteed Holt a lifetime contract; if giving up 777 total yards and 67 points in one game isn’t enough, what is? On a brighter note, though, what I also took away from that game was that quarterback Keith Price is really good. That juke and pump fake on one of his three touchdown runs was sublime.

Price is talented enough to keep Washington in the game against Oregon, but it still won’t be quite enough.

Bold prediction: Firing Holt won’t help much against the Ducks. They’ll still rack up 50-plus points en route to victory.

Oct. 13 Bye week

Oct. 18 at Arizona State (Thu)

Hard to imagine a bigger implosion than what Arizona State went through this season. After starting 5-1 and pushing their way to a No. 18 ranking, the Sun Devils went on to lose six of their final seven games, including a 56-24 shellacking at the hands of Boise State in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas. It would enough to cost Dennis Erickson his head coaching job, and he’s replaced by former Pitt coach Todd Graham (who, for the record, sounds like a huge sleezeball). New coach or not, there’s no way Arizona State will be able to hang with Oregon, even at home.

Bold prediction: Somewhere at an NFL practice, former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict will commit an egregious personal foul to commemorate this game.

Oct. 27 vs. Colorado

Sigh. Can the Pac-12 rescind its contract with Colorado? What was the point of adding them to the conference? This is sure to be another snoozer.

Bold prediction: Oregon throws up 30 points in the first quarter before half the stadium falls into a drunken stupor.

Nov. 3 at USC

And now, all of a sudden, things get real serious. Based on what I’ve heard from most fans, this game is already being written off as a loss for Oregon. Matt Barkley is back, as are receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. The Trojans are at home this time. Pretty much unstoppable, right? It’ll be tough, but it would behoove everyone to remember that Oregon came pretty close to beating USC last time around despite playing terribly in the first half. Most of the defense returns, and the secondary should be much improve since its last encounter with the Woods-Lee two-headed monster.

Bold prediction: De’Anthony Thomas puts on a show in his first game at the Coliseum, prompting Lane Kiffin to pull him aside postgame and beg him to transfer.

Nov. 10 at California

You really have to give Jeff Tedford credit. No matter how may times he puts up a mediocre season, he still manages to stay employed. I suppose it’s that Cal realizes it can’t do much better. In terms of this game, Oregon should win, but playing at Berkeley always seems to cause weird things to happen.

Bold prediction: It’s another low scoring affair, but Oregon manages to pull off it’s annual “sloppy win of the year.”

Nov. 17 vs. Stanford

Next year is going to be really weird for Stanford. The program was so thoroughly defined by Andrew Luck that it will probably take more than a year before anyone knows where exactly they are going. Obviously, this won’t be heralded as one of the “games of the year,” as it was in the two seasons prior.

Bold prediction: While Luck impresses early on in his debut NFL season, people finally look back and give the Oregon defense the credit it deserves for containing him so well both in 2010 and 2011.

Nov. 24 at Oregon State

Call me spoiled or accuse me of lacking perspective, but I’m just tired of this “rivalry.” I actually hope that the Beavers are competent next year, just so this game is more exciting.

(Not actually) Bold prediction: It won’t be more exciting, and people will wonder why they made the trip to Corvallis at all.

Nov. 30 Pac-12 title game (Fri)

It’s safe to assume, for now, that Oregon will play in this game — presumably in a rematch against USC. Should be one of the best games of the year with, at the very least, a Rose Bowl berth on the line.

Bold prediction: The Pac-12 will up the ante with the game’s pomp and circumstance by parachuting Larry Scott onto the field during pre game ceremonies.

A Very ‘Rosey’ Victory

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

A lot has happened in 95 years. No, I’m not going to give you a big dissertation on what’s occurred since Woodrow Wilson was president. (You can go to the History Channel for that one).   But 1917 was the last time Oregon won the Rose Bowl. That is, until Monday.

For once, the Ducks did more than show up for a big game, defeating Wisconsin 45-38 in Pasadena. As a result, Oregon can discard some critiques about their football team.

Chip Kelly can officially call himself a big-time coach now. (Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

They can’t win a BCS Bowl? Just did it. Same goes for beating a ranked non-conference opponent away from Autzen Stadium.

All that talk about how Chip Kelly was just an offensive gimmick coach? By winning this Rose Bowl, that perception will change things dramatically. You can also officially say Oregon is an elite college football program without a scoff here and there. There is more to this squad than a multiple choice of fancy uniforms.

However, this victory was not only crucial for validating the present. It was important for assuring an even brighter future. With USC primed to wrestle back the Pac-12 next season, it would’ve been a lot tougher to sell Oregon to potential five-star recruits without winning a game the Trojans used to take regularly.

Now you can expect that for the next few years, the Ducks and SC will battle for conference supremacy. Those games will be worth the price of admission.

De'Anthony Thomas went 91 yards untouched for a score in the Rose Bowl. (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

But that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, let’s look at some of the great stories that came out of a milestone moment.  Before we get to any of the great plays, I think you have to tip your hat to some of the fine assistant coaches like Nick Aliotti, Gary Campbell, Steve Greatwood, and Don Pellum.

These guys have been involved with the program since Rich Brooks was head coach and can remember the days when Oregon fans would be happy to get to any bowl.  With their hard work, they set the foundation that made the program what it is today. Without what these guys put together, you never would’ve seen someone like De’Anthony Thomas set foot in Eugene.

Speaking of De’Anthony, he did a lot on only two carries, didn’t he? A 91-yard run for a touchdown in the first half (which set a new Rose Bowl record) followed up with a 64-yard dash early in the third quarter.  I thought he might be the X-factor due to his athleticism, and the Badgers simply couldn’t match his speed when tested.

Lavasier Tuinei saved his best game for last as the Rose Bowl Offensive MVP. (Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In fact, his spectacular day made LaMichael James’ 159-yard performance seem bland in comparison.  If this was the last time he put on a Duck uniform, then he’s going out in style.

Ditto for Lavasier Tuinei.  The senior wideout has been criticized for not playing up to his full potential.  Yet he earned the offensive MVP honors with clutch catch after clutch catch, including two touchdowns. Having talked to him a couple of times, I’ve found him to be a decent fellow and I always like good things to happen to good people.

Of course, Tuinei can’t do that if quarterback Darron Thomas hadn’t played with great poise during the contest. True, he threw a pick and fumbled a ball that resulted in six points for the Badgers.  But Thomas shrugged off his miscues and managed the game well enough to win.  You remember how people were calling for Bryan Bennett earlier this year? They won’t be doing that going into 2012.

By the same token, kudos have to go to the Oregon defense. Yes, they gave up a lot of yards, particularly to Montee Ball. However, if you watched closely, it was clear that the Ducks weren’t afraid of the big running back or their super-sized offensive line. Look at the numerous times they’d answer one of Ball’s 10-yard bursts by knocking him on his keister on the next down. In the end, they made enough plays to contain a high-powered offense.

Terrance Mitchell and the Oregon defense made plays when needed in Pasadena. (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised by how they performed, based on how they grew as the season progressed.  Look at the freshman cornerback Terrance Mitchell.  At the start of the year, he had to endure a trial-by-fire against LSU when he started in place of (no-longer-on-the-team) Cliff Harris. Could you have envisioned then that he’d be the one who forced Jared Abbrederis to fumble late in the game?

Or how about linebacker Kiko Alonso? He’s been a troubled young man the past couple of years, and he started the year suspended. Without rehashing any incidents, it appears Alonso has put his transgressions behind him and he played out of his mind against Wisconsin.  Where would they have been without his interception? That play was just one of many reasons why he was named the defensive MVP.

There are so many things you can talk about why the Ducks were able to pull out this amazing win. But you don’t have all day to read them, and I don’t have all day to write them. I will simply offer a couple more items before moving on.

Kiko Alonso came up with a critical interception against the Badgers. (Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

First, enjoy this victory, Duck fans. It took a long time to get to this point and you’ve endured many years of heartache in similar situations.

Second, this win is not the end of a journey. It is the beginning of another quest of even greater achievements.  Does this mean Oregon will win the Pac-12 every year from here on out?  No.  As stated earlier, USC is going to win a couple here and there, and schools like Washington will be formidable if they can get a defense.

But you won’t see the drop off that followed Joey Harrington’s departure in 2001. These guys will be in the hunt for BCS Bowls for a long time to come. Right now, I can’t wait for spring football to arrive.

Since it will take awhile before football rolls around again, let’s talk a little Oregon men’s basketball before I wrap this one up.  As I’ve said many times, it’s hard to get a read on how good these guys can be this season.

The Ducks started off the Pac-12 slate in fine fashion by spanking Washington State 92-75 in Spokane last Thursday. Unfortunately, they ran into a buzz saw in Seattle, losing 76-60 to Washington on Saturday.

There have been reasons for optimism with solid play from Devoe Joseph, E.J. Singler, Olu Ashalou, and Brett Kingma. What the Ducks have to do now is get a little more consistent and toughen up on defense.  If they can do that, they might have as good a chance to win the conference as Cal, Oregon State, or UW.  There is no front-runner in the Pac-12 at the moment, and one who cleans up their mistakes the quickest will likely take the title.  Should be fun to watch, and we’ll know a lot more about Oregon after they play Stanford and Cal this week.

With that in mind, I’m tired after keeping up with all the stuff that has happened recently. You’ll hear from me in a couple of days, as I begin to ramp up the college and prep basketball coverage.  I should also note that you will hear me talk about the Oregon women’s basketball team in the next column, and why they’ll need Amanda Johnson and Nia Jackson healthy to have any chance of finishing with a winning record this year.

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

 

Complete team effort leads Oregon to first Rose Bowl victory in 95 years

PASADENA, Calif. — For the first time in his career, LaMichael James had every reason to celebrate the season’s end.

In perhaps the final outing of the most illustrious career in Oregon football history, James rushed for 159 yards and one touchdown in helping the fifth-ranked Ducks to a 45-38 victory over No. 10 Wisconsin in the 98th Rose Bowl Monday evening.

The redshirt junior broke his own school single-season rushing clip with 1,805 yards, besting his own mark of 1,731 set in 2010. But on a day filled with broken records and highlight reel footage, the end result was the only thing that mattered between two programs desperate for a postseason victory.

“It just makes you feel unbelievable,” said James, who passed the 5,000-yard rushing mark for his career (5,082), which ranks 13th all-time in NCAA history.

Oregon (12-2) shook any reservations about not being able to perform in the postseason against a talented Wisconsin squad (11-3) that lost in the Rose Bowl for the second straight year.

As third-year head coach Chip Kelly said repeatedly during the month-long build up to the game, the Ducks are “a forward-thinking operation” and don’t put unnecessary emphasis on past losses — particularly against Ohio State and Auburn.

“We believe it’s on the line every day we step on the practice field,” Kelly said. “We believe it’s on the line every game we play in, and that formula works for us. We’re 34-6 in the last three years because we take every game like it’s the Super Bowl.”

With Oregon trailing 38-35 late in the third quarter, junior offensive lineman Carson York went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury on a play that saw Darron Thomas intercepted by safety Aaron Henry in the Wisconsin redzone.

It took several minutes for the medical staff to get the 6-foot-5, 292-pound guard onto a stretcher and off the field. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin fan base, which largely outnumbered Oregon supporters, began to do the wave around its portion of the stadium.

Neither the Duck fans nor the players took lightly to act, and once play resumed it was all Oregon. After three straight runs by junior Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, junior linebacker Kiko Alonso made a diving interception near midfield to swing the momentum back in Oregon favor as the final period began.

A few moments later, Thomas connected with senior Lavasier Tuinei for his second touchdown of the game from 11 yards out to take a five-point lead. Oregon’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, then proceeded to exhaust nearly six minutes off the play clock before Alejandro Maldonado made a 30-yard field goal for the game’s final points.

James carried the ball nine times for 28 yards in the fourth quarter. He said the injury to York and the way the Wisconsin fans responded simply added fuel to an already red-hot fire.

“Especially when the other team was being very disrespectful, and I really felt that way,” James said. “Why would you do the wave when you know there’s a player down? I didn’t really like that too well. I just wanted to go out there and win that game for our fans and for Carson, he went down with the injury and that was a disrespectful moment.”

Alonso’s key interception was one of several impressive plays from the junior linebacker on the day, who also had 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss to go along with multiple special teams tackles. For his effort, Alonso was named the Defensive Player of the Game.

“It feels great to get the win for (the seniors) because I came in with most of them,” Alonso said. “It just feels great to get it for all of them.”

One of those seniors, Tuinei, had arguably the best game of his career. The 6-foot-5 wide receiver finished with a career-high eight receptions for 158 yards and a pair of timely touchdowns, and was selected the Offensive Player of the Game.

“LT been working hard all year, it’s destined to happen for him,” said Thomas, who finished 17-of-23 for 268 yards and three scores with one interception. “That guy’s been working hard ever since the jump. He’s one of the guys that’s been working through injury all year.”

Kelly reiterated that Monday’s victory was a complete team effort, and true freshman De’Anthony Thomas made sure to put a his own stamp on the victory.

The co-Pac-12 Freshman of the Year set the Rose Bowl record for the longest run and scoring play with his 91-yard rushing touchdown to end the first quarter. He also set the new Rose Bowl standard for all-purpose yards with 314 (155 rushing, 34 receiving and 125 on kickoff returns).

After the game, Thomas was asked how he’d approach his sophomore season.

“I feel like I’ve got to work on everything,” Thomas said. “Just when the season comes, we’ll just start all over and work harder just like I did this summer. Just be a leader again for my team.

“Just excel with the freshman class that’s coming up next year, and it’s going to be great to watch.”

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