Oregon's backfield isn't hurting for national attention, and the on-field production justifies the hype.
De'Anthony Thomas is on the cover of Sports Illustrated right now. Though the Ducks sophomore can't be pigeonholed as just an RB, he averages a scary 17.5 yards per carry whenever he takes a handoff. SI anointed him the fastest player in college football, and he's tied for the lead in all of college football for touchdowns with seven (four on the ground), despite limited action.
His backfield mate and workhorse of the duo, Kenjon Barner, is a top-three round NFL prospect at the running back slot, averaging 108 yards per game and a Pac-12-leading six rushing scores.
But No. 3 Oregon's counterpart in the carries department in Saturday night's showdown with No. 22 Arizona, Ka'Deem Carey, is a relative unknown, despite sitting in the second slot among the Pac-12's rushing leaders, ahead of Stanford's Stepfan Taylor and trailing only UCLA's Johnathan Franklin.
A dramatic change in status would accompany another heavy night of production at Autzen Stadium.
Arizona's emergence onto the scene has paralleled Carey's sudden maturation.
The sophomore back out of the Tucson, Ariz. suburb of Oro Valley (by way of New Jersey) was critical in Arizona's opening wins—breaking off a 73-yard TD scamper en route to 147 total in the OT opener versus Toledo, then torching a solid Oklahoma State defense for 126 yards and three scores. He followed that with 82 total yards and a TD against South Carolina State before resting his legs for Oregon for the bulk of the second half.
As noted by Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen before the year started, Carey's grown up in a hurry, on and off the field:
This is not Carey, the freshman, breaking in slowly, gaining 481 yards as a fill-in for Keola Antolin, running behind a novice offensive line in a program that imploded at midseason.
This Ka'Deem Carey, the sophomore, locks in on your eyeballs and does not look away. He smiles, widely. He is both engaging and conversational.
Carey's wasn't a widely circulated name outside of deep Southern Arizona, an area where he became something of a prep legend, rushing for 268 yards and scoring six touchdowns (including one passing) in the state championship game as a junior.
At that time, the opposing coach said Carey was the closest thing he'd seen to an NFL player taking on high school kids. He made a quick ascent up the recruiting charts that year, only to fade as a senior—the speculated deterrents being academics and discipline issues— with his recruitment ultimately coming down to in-state rivals the U of A and ASU (early on, he was interested in Oregon).
Carey chose to stay home, one of the final recruiting coups of the Mike Stoops era. Rich Rodriguez can thank his predecessor for that much—rostering the centerpieces, along with QB Matt Scott, to his high-tempo offense. It's that combination that's spearheaded Arizona's rise into the Top 25.
The kid showed glimpses of promise in his frosh campaign despite Stoops handcuffing his playing time, giving him less than eight touches per game on a team that was going nowhere and needed to start thinking of its future. He punctuated the 2011 season with 92 yards on 13 carries in the upset of ASU.
But he's taken a particular liking to Rodriguez's spread-option attack, a distant cry from the Nick Foles-led, pass-happy offense run during the former regime.
Carey possesses a special combination of traits that longtime Arizona followers may recognize: He is the nephew of Vance Johnson, the former favorite target of John Elway who is also in the argument as the best offensive player Arizona's program has ever known.
The speed and power are there in bulk, carried by a prototypical 5'10", 203-lb frame, but it's his balance and ability to cut suddenly that make him a contender for the All-Pac-12 squad. He's a rare homegrown talent, and his early returns are starting to beef up his reputation.
After three weeks worth of 2012, consider Carey officially on the radar of all of the conference's defensive coordinators, the latest threat among a crew of future NFL backs.
But in order to solidify his ranking among the conference's elite and propel Arizona to one of the most significant wins in the program's history, he'll need to rival the output of the Oregon backfield—a backfield that just might be the best in college football.
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