De'Anthony Thomas (right) will likely get more carries with the departure of Kenjon Barner (left)
The Oregon football team is coming off its third straight 12-win season, but 2013 will mark the first time since 2008 that neither LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner will be a part of the backfield.
While many other positions will have exceptional depth and experience, the ground game will likely feature several new faces. And as the running game goes, so too does the Oregon offense.
The high-flying Oregon Ducks are at their best when they're able to churn out yardage on the ground. That task is made easier with guys like James and Barner, but the cupboard certainly isn't bare with their absence.
In addition to backs like De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall, the Ducks' recruiting haul should bring in more top-end talent.
There are a myriad of reasons why optimism abounds for the future of the ground game, but who will step up into the lead role?
Let's take a look at the young men who will continue Oregon's tradition of talented backs, and predict the guy who might emerge as the team's leading rusher in 2013.
RB Byron Marshall
The Ducks return two scholarship running backs with experience playing in big games.
That would be do-everything speedster De'Anthony Thomas, and the true freshman bruiser with surprising quickness, Byron Marshall.
In addition to Thomas and Marshall, five walk-ons, including Kenny Bassett and Ayele Forde, will likely be returning next season.
That gives us a total of nine different players who will fight for carries next season. The talent level is unprecedented in the history of the program.
QB Marcus Mariota
Before we get too carried away looking at the talent in the running back stable, let's not forget about quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose impact on the running game is vital to the team's success.
Mariota finished second on the team with 752 yards rushing, but that number could easily go up with another year under his belt.
Oregon Duck fans don't want to see their QB taking hits very often, but it's impossible to overlook what Mariota's speed does to defenses. He had five runs of longer than 30 yards this past season, including an 86-yarder at Arizona State.
Marcus Mariota won't be considered when predicting the team's leading rusher for 2013, because the Ducks simply don't use their quarterbacks enough in the run game to put up the yards it would take to lead the team.
But seeing him rush for 800-plus next year shouldn't surprise anybody.
Walk-On RB Ayele Forde
In narrowing down the list of guys who could lead the team in rushing, we have to cut the walk-on running backs.
While that may seem obvious, let's not forget the kind of impact these five guys have had throughout the course of the year in getting the team ready each week.
Ayele Forde and Kenny Bassett lead the group, and after watching them play in garbage time, it's pretty clear they have the talent to play at a lot of BCS-level schools.
Lane Roseberry, Jordan Thompson, and Bill Chimphalee round out this group. Their contributions are felt on the scout team each week as the defense prepares for a variety of looks that the opponent could use.
Despite their unseen impact, none of these players will lead the team in rushing in 2013.
Tyner (left) talking with Oregon head coach Chip Kelly.
Fans are excited about incoming recruits Thomas Tyner and Dontre Wilson, and why shouldn't they be?
Tyner ran a 10.35 100-meter dash in high school, an Oregon state record. His speed will rival and perhaps even surpass De'Anthony Thomas in the open field, a prospect that should have upcoming opponent cowering.
Dontre Wilson is more of an all-purpose athlete, whose speed and quickness are also among the nation's elite. His talents were sought after by many top programs.
Wilson's chance to make an immediate impact will likely come in the return game and in the receiving corps, so I doubt he'll be leading the team in rushing yards next season. I picture him as a younger De'Anthony Thomas, with so much versatility that lining him up in the backfield may not be Chip Kelly's first priority.
As for Tyner, well, let's just say expectations will be through the roof. His size, 6'0", 205 lbs, will set him apart from the recent trend of smaller running backs. But he's still just potential. We don't know how he'll take a college hit, and we don't know what his moves will look like against Pac-12 defenses.
While both Tyner and Wilson could definitely play next season, and even contribute quite a bit, I don't see either player getting enough carries to lead the team in rushing.
Byron Marshall (far left) and De'Anthony Thomas (without helmet) are the most likely candidates to lead the 2013 team in rushing.
This brings us to the two remaining candidates, Byron Marshall and De'Anthony Thomas.
Thomas arrived at Oregon and played a variety of roles. He's returned kickoffs, punts, played slot receiver and lined up in the backfield. But toward the end of this past season, most notably against Oregon State, we saw Thomas receive a large portion of the carries.
While Thomas may not be able to handle more than 15 carries per game, his durability has never been an issue and shouldn't be one heading into next season, either.
Marshall, with a year under his belt, will likely be listed as the team's number two back, behind Thomas. He averaged over five yards per carry, and even toted the rock 24 times in the season-opener against Arkansas State.
He has deceptive speed and is more of a breakaway threat than many realize. He must improve his vision in hitting the hole, but let's remember that he was a true freshman who arrived in Eugene over the summer.
With his intriguing combination of power and speed, Marshall will be a very large part of Oregon's offense next season.
So who leads the team in rushing in 2013?
RB Byron Marshall
I think Byron Marshall will lead the Oregon Ducks in rushing in 2013, for several reasons.
First, he had a better freshman season than most people realize. Fans have become spoiled watching LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, but neither played as true freshmen. Marshall, after the Arkansas State game, averaged six yards a carry and had a long touchdown run called back in the Oregon State game.
His speed doesn't match that of James or Barner, but he's not any slower than former great Jonathan Stewart. And he's definitely faster than LeGarrette Blount.
Second, I think De'Anthony Thomas will be used in a variety of ways, whereas Marshall will be used mainly as a running back. Thomas can do everything, but he gained only 106 more yards on the ground this season than in 2011 despite getting 37 more carries. I think Marshall will develop into a more consistent rushing option.
And lastly, the Ducks need to replace more than 21 carries a game from Barner. With Thomas already getting more than seven each game, I expect well over half of those carries to go to Marshall.
Figuring out how to use all this talent is a problem the Ducks should enjoy having. And while several guys could lead the team in rushing next season, I think Byron Marshall will become the latest in a long line of elite backs to step into the lead role.