Oregon running back Kenny Bassett has witnessed a phenomenon occur every year with his new freshmen teammates. Fresh out of high school, new players enter the program with confidence and a reluctance to hard work that blinds them from the culture in place.
“When people come in — all the freshmen — they don’t really get it: Practice is hard,” Bassett said. “When they first get here a lot of people don’t want to work. You just got to teach them our culture and then the culture becomes a force of habit.”
Fellow running back Byron Marshall thought he possessed the appropriate work ethic to fully use his capabilities in college football, until assistant coach Tom Osborne questioned the young running back.
“I thought I worked hard until he told me ‘you think you work hard, but you don’t,’” Marshall said. “It kind of made me mad because I thought I did.”
Osborne didn’t specify where, or how Marshall could improve. He told him to just to work harder in every facet of his daily life, whether it was in practice or in the classroom. Heading into his junior year, Marshall understands why his coach questioned his work ethic.
“I finally get it now,” Marshall said. “There is so much more I could’ve done in practice and I get that now. What you put into it is what you’re going to get out.”
Through preparation and a concerted effort on practice, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich thinks Marshall can take his game to the next level this season.
“Consistency is his next step,” Helfrich said of Marshall, Oregon’s leading rusher (1038 yards, 14 touchdowns) from a year ago. “Part of that with Byron is conditioning, part of that is confidence, part of that is total scope knowledge of the system and just cutting it loose. But that only comes with great preparation. He’s another guy that can practice a little bit better and we’ve had many discussions”
The perfect practice formula is something Marshall has experienced. In order to piece a perfect practice together on a consistent basis, Marshall said he had to reflect and retrace his steps.
“Once you know ‘OK, that’s what I need to do’ you kind of retrace it back,” Marshall said. “That’s what you’re trying to get to every day and every second. Or, you’re stuck in the woods wondering if you are playing hard enough.”
Like Marshall, sophomore running back Thomas Tyner is being looked at as a guy that has the ability to take the next step and become a focal point of the Ducks’ offense. Eliminating hesitation and playing at full speed will be a priority for Tyner, but that’s something that will come with more experience in his second year.
“Thomas is one of those guys who dips his toes in the water and kind of goes ‘oh, OK, now I can cut it loose,’” Helfrich said. “He just needs to have a little bit more confidence in what he’s doing and part of that is experience. He’s a young guy and he just needs to see things a second, third or fourth time.”
When Tyner first arrived on campus last year, he was one of the quietest players on the roster. Learning to talk and learning to communicate is part of the adjustment process from high school to college.
“Everybody is quiet when they first get here because it’s so fast and no one really knows what to expect,” Bassett said. “Thomas is probably the quietest person I know. He’s changed, but when he first got here, he was really quiet.”
With the notoriety and lore of being a five-star recruit, Tyner was thrown into the fold immediately.
“Coming into fall camp they threw me right in there,” Tyner said. “I didn’t know the plays or how to run them.”
As the season progressed, Tyner found his voice. He started making noise with his breakaway speed and a home-run hitter’s mentality as a running back. Against in-state rival Oregon State, Tyner rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Coming into this season, Tyner doesn’t have to speak for himself. He’s become one of the main elements of conversation in Eugene after being named to the Maxwell and the Doak Walker Award watch lists. Along with Tyner, Marshall was also featured on both of those watch lists.
With one football to go around, and a shared competitive nature between both Marshall and Tyner, it’s easy to wonder how the two running backs will co-exist. Instead of friction between the two, Marshall suggests that the competition pushes both of them to get better.
“We just like to feed off of each other’s energy,” Marshall said. “If Thomas goes in there, has a big play, gets tired and I have to go in, I’m excited. He just had a huge run, now, let me go get a huge run. It just bounces back and forth and we just try to feed off each other.”
Over the course of spring practices, Helfrich and running backs coach Gary Campbell searched to find ways to get players on the field as much as possible. Marshall and Tyner worked a lot more out of the backfield and in the slot as receivers.
“Both those guys have great hands. They run great routes,” Campbell said in spring. “They’re not up to par with some of the receivers because they haven’t done a lot of it, but they’re capable. We’ll definitely have those two guys catching the ball.”
The combination, rather than the competition between the two, is a benefit to the entire Oregon offense.
“It’s going to put a lot more pressure on the defense as far as matchups go,” Marshall said. “For us, it’s just going to make us a lot more versatile. We don’t have to come on and off the field and try and get used to the rhythm of the game. We can both be in there at the same time and play well.”
Bassett added: “When you have two guys who can do it all, what more do you need?”
Follow Joseph Hoyt on Twitter @jhoyt42