When the Oregon Ducks took the field on September 4, 2010, the offensive backfield looked significantly different from what fans had expected nine months prior when they filed out of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The loss to Ohio State had been a tough one, and there were numerous beloved players who moved on after the 2010 Rose Bowl. Nonetheless, there was still an optimistic tone among fans. After all, they had two dark horse Heisman candidates returning in the offensive backfield alone: Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James.
Yet here they were in Autzen Stadium at the dawn of the 2010 season, Masoli on the other side of the country commanding the Ole Miss offense (where he was eventually upset by Jacksonville State in double overtime) and James in street clothes on the sideline.
James had been suspended for the first game, and Masoli had been dismissed from the team entirely after being accused of stealing a laptop and other merchandise from a campus fraternity house. Duck fans could not believe their bad luck, especially after the previous season had been kicked off in a similar fashion when LeGarrette Blount was suspended for the season after the Boise State game.
Oregon knew what it had behind James. Backup running back, although he was really more of an option 1b than a backup, Kenjon Barner was in control, and no one was too worried about the ground game when it was in his hands.
However, there were plenty of whispers flying around Eugene concerning the quarterback situation. This day was the beginning of the Darron Thomas era, and no one yet knew just how much the Texas native would exceed expectations.
Some believed that Chip Kelly should have given the starting nod to Nate Costa, an extremely talented veteran who likely could have started at many other colleges. He had been engaged in a position battle with Thomas throughout camp, and it had only recently come out that the job belonged to DT.
Many were nervous on September 4, 2010, not because they doubted Thomas, but because of the unknown. Everyone had been prepared to see Masoli. They knew Masoli. They liked Masoli. Who cares if he threw for less than 180 yards per game in 2009? We’re talking about a quarterback who ran straight through defenders and put them on their backs. How many quarterbacks can do that?
Not to mention the more important fact: he won games.
The Ducks received the ball to begin the game and Thomas took the field as the Ducks’ starter for the first time. The
lanky quarterback, who really almost seems delicate when you look at him, brought Oregon to the line of scrimmage and began the season.
A few nice runs by Barner and a couple of nice screen plays to Jeff Maehl and Lavasier Tuinei had Duck fans getting comfortable. Then, on a first down from New Mexico’s 12-yard line, Thomas threw an interception to Joe Stoner and the Lobos had the ball going the other way with great field position.
It was just New Mexico. It was just the first drive. Our defense had it under control. All of these things were true, but there was an underlying fear. Can Thomas get it together and truly make this offense two-dimensional?
That was the last time Thomas was doubted as a leader, because 220 yards and two touchdowns later, he and Barner had led the Ducks to a 72-0 win over New Mexico, one of the biggest wins in school history, and set the tone for what would eventually be an undefeated regular season.
Masoli won games, but Thomas took them over. The Ducks jumped up from 36 points per game in 2009 to 47 points per game in 2010. DT wasted no time gaining the trust of Oregon fans. He wasn’t always “Mr. Cool” like current quarterback Marcus Mariota is, but once he got settled, he could dominate the best of them.
There was perhaps no better example of this than when the Ducks hosted Stanford in 2010. The Cardinal were one of the top teams in the nation playing behind quarterback Andrew Luck. Early turnovers (including a pick by Thomas) and shaky defense allowed Stanford to hop out to a 21-3 lead.
However, DT didn’t panic. In fact, he turned it on. The Oregon signal-caller hit a wide-open Jeff Maehl for a 29-yard touchdown. After the Ducks recovered a brilliant onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, Thomas led his team on another scoring drive, this one ending on a James touchdown.
Thomas ended the game having completed 69 percent of his passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps his best play of the night, however, came on the ground when he ran an option near the goal line and completely embarrassed a Stanford defender with a fake pitch and strolled into the end zone (that play can be seen at :32 in the video below).
After Oregon’s 12-0 regular season, most of the attention hovered around LaMichael James, and rightfully so, considering the fact that James had led the nation in rushing.
However, Thomas had just stepped in and led the Ducks to an undefeated season. He had thrown 28 touchdowns to only seven interceptions, added five scores on the ground, and posted a passer rating of 150. To put it into perspective, Heisman finalist Andrew Luck from Stanford had also posted 28 touchdowns to seven interceptions with three rushing touchdowns and a passer rating of 170.
Talk about underrated.
When your numbers stack up that well against a Heisman finalist, you deserve more postseason attention than Thomas received. In case there were any doubters left in the building, DT once again brushed off a shaky start and threw for 363 yards in the national title game against Auburn, the second-highest total ever posted in a national championship game.
While his play seemed to slip a bit at times during the following year in 2011, Thomas’ numbers actually improved. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,761 yards and 33 touchdowns to only seven interceptions, not to mention an improved passer rating of 158.
Oregon went 24-3 in Thomas’ two years as a starter in 2010 and 2011. Only Kellen Moore of Boise State had a better record over that same time period (24-2), and keep in mind that that took place in the WAC. Luck and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden each had 23 wins, but neither could quite reach the true dominance that Thomas achieved as a Duck.
Darron Thomas led Oregon to the only undefeated regular season that it’s known in the modern era. He led the Ducks to their first national title game, their first Rose Bowl victory in nearly a century, and a win in the first ever Pac-12 Championship Game. He beat Stanford twice by a combined total of 44 points, and he helped take Oregon football to heights it has never known before.
And then, he was gone.
A victim of unlucky circumstance, Thomas was faced with a decision following the 2011 season. He could either attempt to take his talents to the NFL or stick around and hope that freshman phenom Marcus Mariota didn’t beat him out for the starting job.
As great as Thomas was, his decision to turn pro makes a lot more sense after watching Mariota do his thing in
2012. There is nothing you can do about having a guy like the “Flyin’ Hawaiian” racing up the depth chart, no matter how good you are.
Thomas unfortunately went undrafted despite his success as a quarterback, a leader, and a winner. He bounced around at a few different NFL camps, most notably Cleveland, and then fell off of the radar.
However, he recently resurfaced when he signed with an indoor team, the Lincoln Haymakers. I think all Duck fans will join me in wishing him the best of luck in his professional career.
Had there been no Mariota, a once-in-a-generation type of player, in the picture, if Thomas’ career had come at any other point, he would have likely stayed for third year and put together one of the greatest resumes of any quarterback in school history. With that being said, given the success that he brought to the program, us Duck fans will happily take those two great years any time.