Mark Helfrich and the Oregon Ducks Need to Maximize De'Anthony Thomas
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So much for the idea that the Oregon Ducks would likely air it out more with star quarterback Marcus Mariota leading the Ducks' high-flying offense under Mark Helfrich.
In their 66-3 victory over Nicholls State on Saturday, the No. 3 ranked Ducks racked up a school record 772 yards of total offense. While it wasn't a school record for rushing yards in a game, the Ducks did put up an astounding 500 yards on the ground.
It was also the first time in the program's 120-year history that three different players eclipsed the 100-yard plateau in the same game. De'Anthony Thomas, the most explosive offensive weapon for the Ducks and the country, carried the load in the first half with two first-quarter scores. The Heisman Trophy candidate finished with 128 yards on a career-high 18 carries. The Ducks' staff knows what they have in the electrifying Thomas and vowed all offseason that they would get him as many touches as they could in a variety of ways throughout each game.
While Thomas showed he can handle a significant load, it was against a low-end FCS opponent. With that in mind, are the Ducks utilizing his skills properly? Should he be out in space more and used as a change-of-pace back, while Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner carry the load on the interior?
While Thomas is much stronger and tougher than his slight frame would indicate, running him between the tackles could be dangerous in terms of the pounding he takes by defenders twice his size. It also takes away some of his big play ability. Regardless of how he gets the ball and where the play is designed to go, Thomas is a home run threat every time he touches it.
Just ask Wisconsin about Thomas' ability to run it up the gut. The issue is, there are usually some angry defenders waiting in the box to smother the diminutive star before he gets going downhill.
Thomas is listed as the starting running back, and on Saturday it appeared that is the way the Ducks are going to play it going forward. The question is whether or not that is the best utilization of not only his skills but also the skills of fellow RBs Byron Marshall, Ayele Forde and heralded freshman Thomas Tyner.
Marshall, Tyner and even Forde, a walk-on, are better suited to run it up the gut in an attempt to wear down a defense. Once the run has been established, that is when Thomas can dominate the game by getting the ball in space and making big plays.
Marshall exploded for 124 yards on just eight carries, while Forde added three carries for 53 yards. Star tight end Colt Lyerla, who was utilized sparingly as a power back in 2012, pitched in 17 yards and a touchdown on three carries in the third quarter. Mariota wasn't particularly sharp throwing the ball, going 12-of-21, but still managed to total 234 yards and one touchdown through the air.
The 5-star recruit Tyner, who is actually faster than Thomas on the track, wasn't ready to play on Saturday after being banged up in fall camp. According to Helfrich, Tyner should be ready to go when the Ducks travel to take on Virginia on Saturday. Adding a back of Tyner's caliber will only make the backfield that much more crowded.
Marshall is fast becoming a proven commodity with speed, power and serious star potential. Add Tyner to the mix and the Ducks have two prototypes in the backfield who should still leave Thomas plenty of opportunities to make plays in space. "The Black Mamba" is the ultimate game changer—so no matter what the future holds, he will be the center of the Ducks' offensive attack.
Perhaps that is what the Ducks' staff has in mind for the star-studded backfield.
Keep Tyner off the radar by using Thomas in an unfamiliar role before unleashing both in their familiar roles when the conference schedule comes around. Thomas is the best of the bunch in the passing game and Tyner has experience as a workhorse out of the backfield.
Thomas had just one catch for two yards against Nicholls State, but if you ask him, he's just as comfortable running in traffic as he is in the slot, per Chris Pietsch of the Register Guard.
The 5-foot-9, 176-pound Thomas has been in good health, save for a few bumps and bruises, up until this point of his career. Time will tell if he can maintain his legs and his overall health if the Ducks continue to use him to pound the ball into the heart of the defense.
Is using Thomas in that role the right approach for Helfrich and the Ducks' new offensive coordinator, Scott Frost? Will the game plan remain the same as the Ducks' schedule gets tougher?
Tune in Saturday as the Ducks travel across the country to face an upstart Virginia squad that is coming off an upset of BYU on Saturday.
Everyone knows the Ducks have as many offensive weapons as any team in the country—if not more. Chip Kelly was a master at finding the right place for his best players to succeed. Helfrich and Frost will need to find the right combination of carries for Thomas, Marshall, Tyner and Forde to make the best use of the Ducks' talented roster.
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