Can De’Anthony Thomas Survive As the Every-Down Back?

De’Anthony Thomas almost went to USC, but he eventually chose Oregon and has helped the team win two straight BCS bowls.  The Trojans have lost a combined eight games these past two seasons.  The Ducks have lost seven games since 2009.

Those three sentences aren’t intended to be rubbed in the faces of USC fans (ok, they kind of are) but rather to show just how fortunate Oregon is to have Thomas.  De’Anthony has been electrifying, and he was this close to being in a USC uniform murdering the hopes and dreams of defenders everywhere.

But as important as he’s been, Thomas hasn’t been involved in the offense all that much.  Sure, he’s made plenty of big plays, but his role has been equivalent to a devastating three-point shooter in basketball.  Often he serves as a decoy to occupy a defender and give the offense more space to operate.  This role is more important than some might think, but it’s not what everyone wants out of a player who has been receiving Heisman hype since arriving in Eugene.

LaMichael James

Kevin Cline

LaMichael James

His workload looks like it will become heavier this season, which will certainly be a welcome change for many Ducks fans.  However, there will undoubtedly be some concern about whether or not he can handle a LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner-like workload.  Thomas is smaller now than either of those two were during their Oregon days.  This fact, in theory, makes him more of an injury risk and less capable of handling 15-20 carries a game.

While the concern is understandable, Mark Helfrich and his staff are making the right call designating Thomas as the primary running back.

First of all, plenty of small backs have been successful and remained healthy while functioning as their team’s main ball carrier.  Hell, James and Barner were not very big, albeit not quite as small as Thomas.  Body size can aid in longevity, but there remain many recent examples of running backs who weren’t all that big yet were extremely effective as the focal point of their offenses.

Reggie Bush had 90, 143 and 200 rushing attempts during his three years at USC.  He also had 15, 43 and 37 receptions along with around the same number of kick/punt returns.  Bush wasn’t as short or light as Thomas but his style of play was very similar.  The USC star would try to make guys miss or attempt to outrun them rather than lowering the shoulder and breaking tackles like, say, 6’2″ 246-pound LeGarrette Blount.

East Carolina’s Chris Johnson (now with the Tennessee Titans) averaged 156 carries, 31 receptions and 29 returns during his four years.  That includes his only injury-plagued college season of 2006 when he started just five games.

Darren Sproles had at least 237 carries in his three seasons as a starter with Kansas State, and was used just a bit less than Bush and Johnson in the passing and return game.

Kenjon Barner

Kevin Cline

Kenjon Barner

There are plenty more examples but you get the gist.  The undersized running back who gets a bunch of touches per game has been proven successful, even for teams like East Carolina and Kansas State.  Neither of those teams were powerhouses when Johnson and Sproles were there, and neither of them, nor Bush, played in anything close to the up-tempo offensive machine Oregon operates.

Thomas has only averaged about 150 touches (includes carries, receptions, returns) in each of his first two seasons and has rarely carried the ball more than ten times in a game.  These details shouldn’t, however, cause people to doubt his ability to handle a heavy workload.  DAT’s size might make him seem fragile and easy to tackle, but this highlight package tells a different story:

0:24 – Oregon runs so many option/read plays like this one that Thomas shouldn’t be forced to run between the tackles too much.
1:09 – Great ability to create something out of nothing.
2:04 – Wow.  Notice how this is a run up the middle and he breaks multiple tackles.  His small stature sure doesn’t cost him here.  It also doesn’t hurt that he’s as fast as a caffeinated cheetah and gets great blocking on the play.  Speaking of which, his lineman will determine if he’s a successful every-down back more than his size will.
4:45 – A run up the middle from the 4-yard line.  Small backs aren’t supposed to get those carries, but Thomas does and scores easily.
9:18 – Another short-yardage carry for a TD.
9:58 – Maybe the best example of his skills in short, close to the end zone runs.  He looks like a 220-pound back here.
12:00 – Breaks tackles, doesn’t go down easily, speed, more speed, all of the speed… he’s a complete back.

Of course one highlight video isn’t representative of his entire body of work.  He has made many other runs of that caliber just like he’s also made runs that might make people question his ability to handle a large amount of touches.

Still, you can see that he’s more than just a super-fast weapon in the mold of DeSean Jackson or Devin Hester.  DeAnthony’s speed allows him to burst through the middle of a crowded group of lineman, and his underrated strength combined with that quickness helps him break tackles you wouldn’t expect of a 175-pound man.

The question posed in the title will go unanswered until the Ducks are well into the 2013 season, but if Thomas has shown us anything the past two years, we shouldn’t expect any answer other than a definitive “YES.”

Oh, and he’s still not going to USC.  Just in case you forgot.

Feature Image at top of page courtesy of Kevin Cline

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