DeAnthony Thomas: Was Lane Kiffin right?

What is the ideal position for DeAnthony Thomas?

In 2011 when DeAnthony Thomas commit to Oregon right before signing day, he effectively turned his back on USC and new head coach Lane Kiffin. USC fans were nervously looking at this defection as another example of Kiffin’s early failings.

After all, Kiffin was hired to replace arguably the best coach in school history, and even he didn’t exactly leave things in good standing. With the same sort of scrambling and hasty exodus that might be expected when the cops show up at a frat party, Ol’ Petey got out just in time when the NCAA told everyone to go home.

While hoards of his friends were left sitting dejected on the curb as the officers started calling parents, Pete Carroll didn’t even have to flash an ID. Somehow he heard the early warning of “Dude, it’s the cops!!!” and ducked out just in time.

The loss of the black mamba a.k.a. DeAnthony Thomas, stacked on top of a 7-5 season, a devastating bowl ban included in the severe NCAA sanctions, the realization of being abandoned by their coach, and having to stomach the hiring of Kiffin combined had rattled a once-proud fan base to its core.

After being offered the job at USC, Kiffin ran out of his then-place of employment–the Tennessee Volunteers–without hesitation. He quickly folded up whatever temporary tents he had set up in Knoxville, and dumped what many would consider to be a dream job at Tennessee, a place with a rich history and unwavering support from one of the most passionate fan bases in all of college football. But Lane Kiffin didn’t care. He wanted to go back home to USC, and bring his NFL veteran dad with him to boost his paper-thin credibility.

When Lane Kiffin took over the head coaching job at USC, he was quick to get to work on putting together a strong recruiting class. After DeAnthony Thomas had commit to USC as a junior, Kiffin made a huge mistake by ignoring DeAnthony’s desire to carry the ball.

At 5’9″ 173lbs, at a glance, the thought was that he was just too small for the position, especially in the NFL. If he was serious about competing at the next level, his best shot was going to come on defense. In fact, Thomas was projected to go down as one of the true greats if he chose to play cornerback, rated the #1 player in the country.

It seemed logical, but not everyone was convinced. DeAnthony Thomas had watched LaMichael James tear out the hearts of the Trojans and thought, “I can do that.” Chip Kelly agreed, and the rest is history.

As Kiffin said at the time “I don’t have closure on the whole thing. It was just shocking to everyone around here.”

Kiffin and the Trojans wanted to see Thomas lined up as a cornerback to best show off his talents. Clearly, DAT can probably play very effectively in a number of positions all over the field. His speed and change of direction translate extremely well as a runner, returner, receiver, and yes even at defensive back. The big difference in skill set between an elite receiver and an elite corner usually comes down to hands and ball security. While DeAnthony struggled in the opener with fumble problems, it was obvious that he could run routes and catch as well as anyone on the team last year.

Thomas has the skills and speed, but what about the size for the pro game? Once a player reaches the NFL, everyone is both fast and big. A player under 180 lbs is rare for any position outside of kicker. Football is a sport of collisions and leverage where weight and size aren’t the only things that matter, but it sure makes a difference most of the time.

Sure, DeAnthony can outrun just about anyone in football pads, but can he pick up a block on a blitzing 250lb. linebacker like Ray Lewis? Probably not. He sure can burn those WSU defensive backs, but could he get open consistently against the likes of a Champ Bailey or Darrelle Revis?

To try and help predict the best NFL spot for DeAnthony, I looked back through the modern (1950’s-current) Pro Football Hall of Fame members at each position to see if there was a common body-type among the players enshrined. Using a few simple measurable categories, can we predict where he would make the most impact? The Black Mamba made quite an impression last year doing things his own unique way, but in terms of an NFL future, was Lane Kiffin right?

Running Backs in the Hall of Fame: 29
Running Backs under 5’10”: 3
Running Backs under 190lbs.: 1

DeAnthony Thomas 2011 rushing stats:
55 carries, 595 yards, 7 touchdowns, 10.8 ypc

Unless looking specifically at DeAnthony Thomas’ highlights from 2011, it would be hard to imagine an athlete of DeAnthony’s size being very effective at the running back spot. There is simply too much punishment the body takes in a typical NFL offense to last long with a frame that small.

Three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust may have been cool in the 60’s, but this is America and we make stuff better as we go. In the new age Chip Kelly offense, the idea is not simply to overpower, but to outsmart and outrun a defense as well. In the Oregon offense DeAnthony is an ideal ball carrier, while at the next level it might be hard to imagine him lining up in the backfield at all.

Doak Walker is the only comparable RB in stature to DeAnthony Thomas in the Hall of Fame

In fact, of all the hall of fame inductees who played running back, really only one player is of a similar build, and he was a pretty good one too–Doak Walker. Walker played at 5’11” 173 lbs, but he stopped playing for my beloved Detroit Lions in 1955, an age when defenders were much smaller too. The average hall of fame caliber running back averages about 6’2″ 220 lbs.

While DAT doesn’t measure up too favorably with that, it is worth noting that running backs are not used the way they were even five years ago in the NFL. It used to be that a starter would need to handle 25-30 carries per game at about 4-yards per carry to be considered effective. Now, teams tend to split the carries more between multiple backs, making 15-20 carries per game a heavy workload.

In the Rose Bowl, Thomas showed that he can be pretty effective with just two carries, scoring on both (65, 91 yards). But in the NFL, can he handle more carries, while being proficient at the other critical details of the position like pass protection? Never say never, but being a future top-flight NFL running back seems like a tall order for DeAnthony Thomas.

Wide Receivers in the Hall of Fame: 21
Wide Receivers under 5’10”: 0
Wide Receivers under 190lbs.: 11

DeAnthony Thomas 2011 receiving stats:
46 catches, 605 yards, 9 touchdowns, 13.2 ypc

Looking down the list of notable former NFL receivers as far as size and skill goes, this is the position DeAnthony would seem to best fit. But there is a caveat; while all but three NFL Hall of Fame inductees are 6’2″ or shorter, the recent trend at the position is to go big. Current players like Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are massive by historical comparison. These days, teams target the ideal size for a receiver to be 6’3″ 200lb., or bigger.

When I think about DeAnthony Thomas in the NFL, the current player who he most reminds me of (without the attitude) is former California Bears standout DeSean Jackson, who stands 5’10” and 175lbs. Both are lightning fast with good hands and the ability to cut on a dime. The knock on DeSean (other than being drafted from Cal) is his difficult personality and unnecessary actions both on and off the field detrimental to his career and team.

Special Teams players in the NFL Hall of Fame (Kickers): 3

DeAnthony Thomas 2011 special teams stats:
Kick returns – 36 attempts, 983 yards, 2 touchdowns
Punt returns – 3 attempts, 52 yards. Also played as a punt coverage Gunner

Few players have made the sort of impact on special teams that DAT did in 2011. Although we all saw just how electric he can be at returning during the USC game, averaging 27.3 yards per return over an entire season is extremely valuable. Not that the Duck offense needs much help, but an extra 30 yards or so makes it a lot easier.

DeAnthony deserves a lot of credit for his lethal kick return ability, but perhaps the most unsung contribution he made last year was as a gunner on punt coverage. The gunner typically lines up on the outside of the formation and is tasked with getting to the returner first, ideally before the ball does, to limit return opportunities.

Oregon led the nation in net punting for much of 2011, due in large part to DeAnthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner arriving at the same time as the kick, leading to a plenty of fair catches on kicks that otherwise would have been returned. Special teams plays such as a big return can really swing the momentum of a game. Not only did DAT create a ton of momentum for the Ducks with his returns, but many times he neutralized the opportunity for opponents to do the same with his coverage.

We can expect to see the Black Mamba back returning kicks and punts again for 2012, but with Kenjon Barner stepping into a leading role as the featured back this year, coach Osborne will be looking for two new gunners to avoid the prospect of injury to a depleted backfield. At the next level, expect DeAnthony to perhaps find his way onto the field first on special teams.

Defensive Backs in the NFL Hall of Fame: 23
Defensive Backs’s Under 5’10”: 2
Defensive Backs Under 190lbs.: 9

DeAnthony Thomas 2011 defensive stats:
2 tackles on special teams

The most similar-sized players enshrined in Canton do in fact play defensive back, which may be cause for the perception that if Thomas had chosen to play corner he could have gone down as one of the all-time greats. This is what Kiffin and the USC brain-trust tried so desperately to convince De’Anthony of, to play corner for the Trojans.

For a player of DeAnthony’s mold, cornerback is traditionally the best shot for making it in the NFL. I must admit, it would be entertaining to watch DAT play in pass coverage, with his recovery speed, acceleration, and change of direction ability on paper he looks like the prototypical lockdown CB. A faster and more legal version of Cliff Harris? Sounds great!

The only problem with DeAnthony being destined for the secondary might be that his hands are simply too good and his elusiveness in the open field too rare to waste on defense. Why spend his talent jamming receivers and back -peddling all game when he runs forward with the ball so well? Lane Kiffin chose to play the expert and tell his recruit where his future would be. The only problem? Not many people like to be told what to do, and DeAnthony Thomas was not ready to let his passion of scoring touchdowns die so easily.

I also speculate that it is probably more difficult when the person telling you what your best interests are had just spent the last several years carving out the de-facto title of “the least-likable football coach in the country,” though to counteract it he oddly was also voted one of the sexiest women alive.

Where Lane Kiffin lacked the ability to see DeAnthony Thomas’ potential or listen to the player to see where he was most comfortable, Chip Kelly took a different approach. Instead of saying “you will play here”, Chip asked, “where do you want to play?”

In the end, it really doesn’t matter what position DAT might play in the NFL. That is for the NFL team who drafts him to decide, and for fans to debate. What matters most now is where he fits best in college, and the answer to that was as an Oregon Duck, the most lethal weapon in an offensive arsenal like none other.

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Josh White

Josh White

Josh White has been a dedicated Duck fan since the Bill Musgrave days. He has attended (and lost his voice at) virtually every home game and many away games since the late 1980's, including 96 of the current 97 game sellout streak at Autzen Stadium. A Eugene native, Josh works full time in Eugene area real estate, helping people buy and sell residential and commercial properties, and also volunteers with Habitat For Humanity, Kidsports and Food For Lane County. He welcomes your feedback.Twitter: @WhiteHouseJosh Facebook: EugenesBestRealtor

37 Responses

  1. worldwidewebfoot says:

    It is all true.  Particularly the part about Ray Lewis or similar.  But this is a free country and if DAT wants to run the ball and catch passes, and Oregon is willing to give him that opportunity, fine.  I think college football should be about college football.  We should not agonize and speculate about how a 19 or 20 year old will or will not do after he graduates.  Let the NFL choose whom it will when the time comes. 


      Well said!  DAT seems like an intelligent kid.  It’s not like he hasn’t thought about these things himself.  What I see, is a kid that is so confident in his abilities, that he just doesn’t care about the status quo.  

    • ACE DuCk says:

      I just want to reiterate what another poster said:

      De’Anthony wasn’t destined for CB with the Trojans. That’s all speculation and rumor. From DAT’s own mouth, he would have been playing the same position at USC as with Oregon.

  2. brem22 says:

    The entire premise of this article is flawed. The notion
    that Lane Kiffen lacked the ability to see DAT’s potential on offense is
    preposterous. Anyone with two eyes and two functioning neurons who watched him
    play in high school could see that he was a once in a generation player that would
    not just excel, but dominate anywhere on the field. More importantly, DAT said
    himself that Kiffen never insisted that he play in the secondary. That said, as
    for how well he’d be suited to play corner, “…on paper he looks like the
    prototypical lockdown CB”? On paper? Dude, at Crenshaw this guy was a TERROR in
    the secondary. This isn’t some abstract concept. If he jumped to the league
    today no one would be shocked if he was an All-Pro corner inside of two years.

    Also, though off parroted, intimating that “Ol’Petey” bailed
    on SC because he was afraid of/escaping sanctions is also questionable. You’d
    be hard pressed to find anyone (who was unbiased) that would suggest he wasn’t
    a man of character. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he’s a deeply
    competitive man, had already proved ALL there is to prove at the collegiate
    level, and wanted a shot to disprove the notion that he couldn’t cut it as an NFL
    HC? To suggest that he “abandoned” the Trojans, or that their fan base has ever
    been anything less than immensely proud of their program is just shameless pandering
    to the envious. In the last ten years alone USC has accomplished 3x what Oregon
    has in their entire history of playing football.

    I’m a Duck fan and I very much enjoy this site – why I’m
    holding you to a higher standard. Last I checked this wasn’t blind-homer
    message board. But if that’s changed let me know. I’ll proceed accordingly.


      Is this the character that Petey displayed when he elegantly mouthed “f*** You to Coach Bellotti after his trojans destroyed the ducks?  

      And come on, not even SC fans will buy that crap.  Carrol left because of the sanctions.  If not then that was THE most incredible timing, EVER!  

      Great Coach, but a man of character?  I don’t know him personally, but I think you probably do not either.  I do agree that Oregon fans are way to quick to compare the last three years to the era of Pete Carrol and SC.  That I agree with.

      • brem22 says:

        Actually, believe it or not, through my job I have met the man on more than one occasion. Not enough times to credibly defend his character, but I do know enough to comfortably speak highly of him. And I feel that most who have followed his career pretty closely could say the same. I’m not saying that impending sanctions did not play a role at all (because how could I possibly know?), but I think there are multiple reasons that he chose to leave – not just the inflammatory one.

        • Platypus1 says:

          The “F*** Y**!” on national television says it all. The Athletic Director, who I believed has since been replaced, should have lowered the boom on Carroll. That was an embarrassment to the university and the program. Spoiled brat.



          I think we can both agree that neither of us really know Pete Carroll in a way that could speak directly to his character.  I could be completely wrong about him, and who knows, maybe next time I am in Seattle I will see Pete helping an old lady cross the street, and find no cameras around.  I am just using simple deductive reasoning here in regards to his reasons for leaving.  Sure there were other reasons for leaving, but it is hard to imagine that the impending sanctions didn’t have a BIG part in that decision.

          Pete was a fantastic coach, and I do want to clear that up.  I am not accusing him of being a liar as Minny21a is claiming.  

          But brem22, you have absolutely no evidence to claim that he is a man of solid character either.  That is the issue I had with your post, and I would be surprised to find many people support that claim, unbiased or not.

          Heck of a coach, competitor, and public speaker….Yes, yes, yes!  But I think it is an insult to men that do have character, to make that statement.    

          • Vicotry4sc says:

            He mouthed FU to Belotti because Belotti is an A’hole. SC got sanctioned only because Paul Dee, Jeanine Pututo, and the Notre Dame member of the COI railroaded SC. There is ZERO proof that anyone affiliated with SC knew what Reggie and his family were doing 150 miles from campus. A would-be agent friend of the bush/griffin family was trying to entice Reggie to turn pro. How that helped SC, I will never know. If SC should have known about Reggie and got hammered on that basis, then how come Auburn shouldn’t have known about Cam. How come OSU’s head coach, who did know and lie about Terrelle Pryor and others only got a slap on the wrist.

      • Mason says:

        There’s an extensive list of things that went wrong at Southern Cal under Peter’s watch. Safe to say that he is, without a doubt, a liar, who payed players to come to Southern Cal, and has no problem sheltering rogue players (Maualuga, who was arrested multiple times while at Southern Cal faced relatively zero disciplinary action throughout his career). He might be a great talker, and a football genius, but he is definitely not a man of character.

    • FishDuck says:

       Ah Brem?  We ARE a homer site…and we make no apology for it.  I am sick of all the journalists trying to make their “bones” in digging up something on Oregon.  On this site we focus on the positive about Oregon, and let all the other media do the negative and “hit” articles.  They are doing them enough for all…

      The exception to that rule?  Other teams, coaches, and fans are fair game.  While this article is one man’s opinion…it is my opinion as well that the timing of Pete’s departure…was more than suspicious to even the biggest “homer” USC fan.

      I appreciate that you hold us to a higher standard, because we are trying to be more of a “high-brow” site, where there is actually some good writing and some pondering resulting from reading an article.  This subject is actually one that I personally have tossed around with some very knowledgeable football people who wonder out loud about the concept of following your dream versus your highest and best use.

      It’s an interesting subject and one that I’m glad Josh got us talking about; thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Lafromla1 says:

    Enjoy having DAT.  Frankly, I will take Marquis Lee over him any day, not only as an athlete, but as a person with character.  And by the way, DAT 0, USC 1.

  4. you know, they said the same thing about lamichael being too small too…. and the entire oregon o line

  5. Scott says:

    isn’t it a bit early to be writing this piece?  DAT has never even played a game at Oregon in which he knew the entire playbook.  scratch that, it’s FAR TOO EARLY for this piece….

  6. Big D says:

    This is a bit off, if you look at HOF it will be scewed to an NFL that’s playing style is differnt from todays, and is changing all the time. You will see more DAT LMJ type players enter as spread optiosn take more hold, so to base it on an old style of playing is misleading.

  7. Naugas says:

    There is only one black mamba and he dosen’t play football…

    •  Kobe stole the black mamba nickname from DeAnthony actually.
      The story goes that Snoop Dogg coined DeAnthony Thomas with the black mamba moniker back when Snoop was coaching DAT’s youth football team alongside his son.
      Snoop and Kobe are friends, and Snoop told Kobe about this kid on his team that made all sorts of deadly plays, called him the black mamba, Kobe liked the nickname and took it for himself.

      So you’re right, there is only one original black mamba…but he DOES play football.

      • Naugas says:

        What? Kobe has been called the Black Mamba since at least 2008 when Thomas was still in high school, what’s wrong with you fool?

        • Naugas says:

           Mark Jackson started calling Kobe ‘Black Mamba’ during the 2004 playoffs…

          • Jasondtolley says:

            Naugas, who gives a sh%t. He’s still one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in college football and it doesn’t matter what he’s called. Get over it and move on.

          • Woolard_89 says:

            We get it, you love Kobe. Move along now

        • ಠ_ಠ says:

          If you want to be a technical douche bag about it then there is only one Black Mamba and its a fucking snake. 

        • Ralf says:

          You have to be between 5-13 to play in Snoop’s Youth Football League. This is when DAT got his nickname from Snoop, after torching Snoop’s team. So that’s a minimum 6 years ago if DAT’s 19 right now, or 2006?

      • Naugas says:

        For the record Thomas grew up in the ghetto (Crenshaw), Snoop’s mansion is in Diamond Ranch about 30 miles away and his kid played for Diamond Ranch high school, get your stories straight…

  8. Axionjaxion34 says:

    USC was 8-5 in Lane’s first season.

  9. Grqeen says:

    The NFL may be changing as the first 6 running backs taken in the 2012 NFL Draft were listed as 5″10 or under. I think he just needs to put on muscle with out losing speed.  If he can do that at least he should be some one like Kevin Faulk or could be a faster Darren Sproles. With most NFL teams using multiple backs, this seems like on optimum time for DAT.

    Personally I think its a little early though to talk about the Hall of Fame as he hasn’t played an NFL game yet.

  10. Tsf541 says:

    Warrick Dunn……5’9″, 185. Seems pretty close to DAT’s stature.

  11. Douglasmai says:

    DAT is an OFFENSIVE NIGHTMARE, love to see him play CB,  but he’s just toooo valuable on Offence, in the NFL though I believe u hit it right on the nail either WR, por DB, and I believe he could be a 1st rounder at either position but for either position he’s going to have to make a full time position change which I believe he will be the NO.1 wide reciever this year for the DUCKS, and could easily do better as far as yards and TDs over either of the Sc kids.

  12. Cristucker4 says:

    I mean I understand they height situation and everything but what does that have to do with him competing NOW. NCAA is not the NFL so why is the focus on the NFL and not what he accomplished at Oregon

  13. Pseudo Nym says:

    I think DAT wil be a fine NFL player. He doesn’t need to be a HOF running back to be worth a 1st round pick. Thomas certainly has the skill set to eventually do in the NFL what he does now in college: return kicks, play slot receiver, and take a handful of carries out of the backfield.

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