With the 2013 season quickly approaching, one aspect to watch out of the Pacific Northwest will be how the Oregon Ducks make use of stud playmaker De'Anthony Thomas. As Marcus Mariota and Thomas develop at quarterback and receiver, respectively, growing Thomas' role in the pass game should be the next phase of revving up the offensive production.
In 2012, Oregon's offense was among the nation's best, finishing second in scoring, third in rushing and fifth in total offense. Chip Kelly's system was potent, and in going 12-1, the Ducks reaped the benefits of the up-tempo, ground-based attack.
Entering 2013, with first-year head coach Mark Helfrich at the helm, Oregon looks to maintain its place on college football's offensive pedestal. Sophomore running back Byron Marshall and newcomer Thomas Tyner will look to pick up where Kenjon Barner and his 1,767 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns left off.
A season ago, De'Anthony Thomas was a Heisman hopeful for the Ducks, a player the nation expected to be in New York City come December, thanks to his electric playmaking ability. However, what transpired was a steep drop-off in production following the Ducks' first three non-conference games. Thomas only topped 100 offensive yards three times in Pac-12 play, even as the rest of the Oregon offense posted huge numbers.
Theoretically, Thomas should make up the difference on special teams through punt and kickoff returns, but teams have taken the ball out of his hands in that respect. Thomas only had 20 returns during the Pac-12 season, six on punts and 14 on kickoffs. Teams are punting the ball away from him, forcing fair catches and kicking touchbacks to neutralize him.
If the 5'9" speedster is going to play a bigger role for the Oregon attack, it is going to have to come through the air.
Thomas is a "spiky" runner, in that he gains little, gains little, gains little and then explodes for a big run when teams make mistakes. He is not built to be the every-down back like current guys Marshall and Tyner, or the past backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
As a known commodity, Thomas is a marked man when he steps on the field. If he lines up in the backfield, teams notice. When he motions into the backfield, teams notice. Not giving up the explosive play to Thomas is written on the defensive game plan in Magic Marker.
The area for DAT to make his hay will be in the passing game. Last year, Thomas set the pace for the Ducks with 45 catches, but only gained 445 yards in the process. Josh Huff's 493 yards were tops for the receiving corp, as first-year quarterback Mariota only threw for 2,677 yards. This year, Huff, fellow receiver Bralon Addison and tight end Colt Lyerla should expect bigger things out of Mariota through the air.
To go along with Mariota's development, it will be curious to see how Thomas is used by the Ducks. There are serious areas of opportunity for the hybrid receiver-running back. It is all about Helfrich getting him the ball in space.
Last season, the bulk of Thomas' receptions came on the edge. He ran smoke routes, screens, speed outs and a few deep outs and wheel routes, all plays that stretched the defense horizontally and gave Mariota throws that would either end up in Thomas' hands or out of bounds. Much of Oregon's passing was focused on the edges of defenses.
In the run game, Oregon focuses on taxing teams both inside and outside. The Ducks use the mid-line read to put pressure on defensive tackles or penetrating linebackers. They use the inside zone read to get between the tackles and the outside zone read to push toward the edges. They use the triple option to attack inside, wide and outside all in the same play. They also run power, counter, trap and sweep, with reads by the quarterback, to put pressure on the interior and edge of a defense.
This year, with Addison and Huff to force the issue on the edge and Lyerla to stretch the hash, Thomas has an opportunity to punish defenses in the soft interior. Between the hashes, as linebackers stretch wide for run fakes and try to expand to Lyerla, there will be space for DAT to operate.
Instead of a steady diet of sideline work that gives Thomas a one-way go as defenders flow inside-out to him, getting the ball in the interior truly will give the junior space. The type of two-way goes that he gets on returns, freedom to go left or right, allows him to blow past linebackers and make defensive backs look silly.
Thomas is going to get his touches on the ground. The next phase of his development will be not just catching passes on the edge, but using mismatches and positioning to get more through the air. Last year, West Virginia, with Tavon Austin, showed just how dangerous a receiver out of the backfield or the slot could be, ripping up the defense's inside. Safeties can't get into the box quick enough, and linebackers can't play run and get to coverage zones at the same time.
Oregon, with a more experienced Mariota, appears poised to surpass last season's high-powered numbers on offense. The bread-and-butter plays of the Oregon offense are going to continue to churn up yards. If Helfrich can find space inside for Thomas, out of the slot, motion and the backfield, the offense will have added another way to tax defenses.