Over the last decade, the Ducks have been one of the few teams in the country to consistently recruit top talent at the running back position. From Jonathan Stewart in 2006 to LaMichael James in 2011, the Ducks have not only produced some of the best running backs in the country year in and year out, but they have also experienced a variety of special backs who have all donned the green and yellow.
With Kenjon Barner in the big leagues, who will the Ducks look to this season to continue their recent trend in producing an elite group of Heisman-worthy running backs?
The quick answer would be De’Anthony Thomas. In addition to racking up 1,296 total rushing yards in two seasons while averaging 8.8 yards per carry, Thomas has virtually been on the Heisman watch list since he entered the collegiate ranks in 2010.
While the numbers point to the possibility of Thomas taking over starting running back duties, the risk of injury may be too high. Thomas has played at the slot position in conjunction with James and Barner over the past two seasons and it could be wise to keep it that way. Recently at the Pac-12 media day, head coach Mark Helfrich addressed Thomas’ potential change of position.
“De’Anthony Thomas likes that role (slot receiver),” Helfrich said. “He likes to be a moving target that doesn’t line up in one position all the time and certainly we like that, too.”
While fans may entertain the idea of Thomas increasing his number of touches in the coming season, the possibility that he may take the reigns at running back seem slim to none. With Thomas focused on doing whatever it takes to help his team win, it opens it up for incoming freshman Thomas Tyner and more so for sophomore Byron Marshall.
Aside from the fact that Tyner is an incoming freshman, he has attracted attention after receiving a five-star recruit label heading into the year. Tyner has yet to play a down in college, so despite a recent history of highly recruited freshmen exploding onto the scene, fans shouldn’t be surprised if the Ducks look to Marshall before turning to a player trying to figure out his place on the team.
On one hand, it would be interesting to hand the keys over to Tyner, who set state and national records last fall in most rushing yards in a single game with 643 (third all-time nationally) and the season with 3,415 total rushing yards. On the other hand, it would be safe to give Marshall the initial start, since he has a year under his belt. In addition to proving both his ability and knowledge for the high paced Oregon offense when given the chance last season, Marshall also rushed for more than 400 yards last season while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
“I don’t really think it’s a competition,” Thomas said. “They’re both out there working hard and Byron’s been here so he’s pretty much experienced to the game, while Thomas [Tyner] is still learning.”
While Tyner is expected to eventually develop into a special player, Marshall has proven to be an explosive back in his limited touches last season and has proven himself as a reliable starter. Marshall is also confident to take on a heavier load next season, which is simply a good sign for the Ducks.
“It’s exciting to know this role is going to change heading into the new year,” Marshall said. “I’m just kind of taking it all in, coming out here working hard everyday, just trying to prove and earn the coaches’ trust as well as my teammates and I feel like it’s been going well so far. I’m a lot more in shape than I was last year. Just all around there were so many improvements I needed to make from last year and I just wasn’t really happy with that year at all.”
The bottom line is that both backs bring a different aspect to the backfield. And with the added possibility of both Marshall and Tyner splitting minutes, it’s definitely going to be a difficult decision for the coaching staff that is currently in full swing at fall camp.
The Ducks haven’t had much problem — if any at all — replacing running backs up until now and though both Tyner and Marshall look to be promising, there is no guarantee how they will pan out in the coming year. Beginning with Terrence Whitehead in 2003, the Ducks have strung together a line of running backs who have continually succeeded one another up until the 2012 season.
At this point, neither Tyner nor Marshall has had to worry about carrying the load of a starting running back, let alone on a team contending for a BCS national championship.
“We’ve had a lot of good backs in the past and they just keep coming and coming,” Marshall said. He claims that as an incoming back, he knows it’s his job to keep the legacy alive.