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Could Byron Marshall's Emergence Change the Role of De'Anthony Thomas?

Oregon RB Byron Marshall is showing more confidence and leads the Ducks with 746 yards and nine touchdowns.
Oregon RB Byron Marshall is showing more confidence and leads the Ducks with 746 yards and nine touchdowns.Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Brandon OliverContributor IOctober 21, 2013

Entering the 2013 season, there were questions about Oregon's running backs. Jonathan Stewart, Jeremiah Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner had carried the load for the offense since 2006. But with all of them now in the NFL, there were doubts about who would be the workhorse in Oregon's backfield this season.

De'Anthony Thomas had never been a lead running back, and Thomas Tyner was just two months removed from high school. Byron Marshall had shown flashes of his talent, but he never seemed completely comfortable on the field.

Three games into the season, Thomas seemed to put an end to the questions, averaging eight yards a carry in rushing for 338 yards. But that was before he injured his ankle on the opening kickoff against Cal and has been sidelined ever since.

Even without him, however, through seven games it appears that nothing has changed; Oregon boasts the nation's No. 2 rushing attack.

Oregon Rushing Statistics (2013)
Byron Marshall1117466.729106.57
Marcus Mariota4949310.06970.43
Thomas Tyner543606.67760
De'Anthony Thomas423388.05684.50

In his first college game, in Week 2 against Virginia, Tyner burst on the scene with 51 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries. But it will take the freshman some time to fully adjust to the college game.

That has left Marshall to carry the load.

It wasn't until this season that the sophomore showed what he can do. In the opener against Nicholls State, he ran for 124 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries.

Still, questions lingered about Marshall's ability after he rushed for a total of just 72 yards on 21 carries against Virginia and Tennessee. But since then, Marshall has continued to improve each time he steps on the field.

Byron Marshall Statistics by Game (2013)
OpponentAttYardsAvg YPCTD
Nicholls St812415.51
Washington St211929.143

Marshall appears to be more comfortable and seems to be gaining confidence with every carry. He has rushed for 100 or more yards as the primary back in each of Oregon's four Pac-12 games. In this video from Molly Blue at Oregonlive.com, Marshall talks about his performance and his increased role in the offense.

My mentality hasn’t really changed that much. I have always had the mindset that once I get on the field I have to dominate the way I know how to. So now that I am on the field more I just get more of an opportunity to dominate.

The 5'10", 190-pound sophomore rushed for a career-high 192 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries on Saturday against Washington State, a performance that made it clear that he can be relied upon to carry the Oregon rushing attack.

Blue also posted this interview on Oregonlive.com with running backs coach Gary Campbell. Marshall might not think anything has changed, but his position coach clearly sees the transformation. 

Byron Marshall Statistics by Game (2013)
Nicholls St812415.51
Washington St.211939.143

With Jason Quick of the Oregonian reporting that Thomas is set to return this weekend against UCLA, it will be interesting to see if the Ducks insert him as the primary running back. Marshall has proven himself as a feature back, and Thomas can be a threat from anywhere on the field.

No. 12 UCLA and No. 6 Stanford, which is next on the schedule, both have physical defensive lines that could slow down Thomas if he is favoring his ankle in any way.

If the Ducks want to compete for the national championship, they will need Thomas on the field. Running him into the middle of a rugged defensive front like Stanford's isn't the best way to keep him healthy.

If the Ducks keep Marshall as the lead back, Thomas would still get carries out of the backfield and have plenty of chances to make plays all over the field.

Thomas has the ability to take over a game with big plays in the passing game, which could help protect his ankle.
Thomas has the ability to take over a game with big plays in the passing game, which could help protect his ankle./Getty Images

After being used almost exclusively as a running back during non-conference play, Thomas could be used in the slot, as a running back or as a wide receiver. Not that a team would ever lose track of Thomas on the field, but the Ducks could potentially catch a team off-guard by moving him around the way they did under Chip Kelly

Thomas is likely headed to the NFL after the season, making Marshall next in line to become Oregon's lead back. So it is important for the Ducks to establish good chemistry between Marshall and the offensive line.

It is hard to fathom anyone ever forcing Thomas to switch positions, but this wouldn't be a negative for the Ducks. There are so many possibilities with both Thomas and Marshall on the field together, and that can only be considered a positive.

Getting a head start on the future without sacrificing the present is a huge advantage elite programs have over programs without the same depth. Marshall is four games into his stint as the lead back for the Oregon offense. There is no reason to slow the momentum he is creating. 

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