Replacing junior running back De’Anthony Thomas, who declared his intention to enter the NFL draft, is more like replacing multiple players at once for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich and his staff.
Thomas' departure leaves the Ducks with vacancies on special teams, in the passing game and in the running game, and no one player is going to fill that void. Thomas is the proverbial round hole on a roster of square pegs, as described by Rob Moseley of GoDucks.com.
@IdahoDucks Could be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, thinking there's a DAT 2.0 on the roster.— Rob Moseley (@DuckFootball) January 6, 2014
Such was Thomas' impact on the Oregon offense. He did a little of everything in his three seasons, debuting in 2011 as a kick returner and slot receiver, then making the move to running back to provide a change of pace to 278-carry workhorse Kenjon Barner.
Quality over quantity, that's what Oregon loses with Thomas pursuing his NFL dream.
He didn't need to dominate the ball to make a game-changing play. Between 92 rushes and 45 receptions, Thomas scored 16 offensive touchdowns in 2012—one for every 8.6 touches.
Thomas was an ideal weapon in Oregon's offense because he has a type of speed perfectly suited to exploit mismatches and coverage in space.
"He's the fastest player on the football field that I've had," Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell said, via The Oregonian. "He plays a lot faster than he really is."
Thomas also used his speed to add a 7.6 yard-per-carry wallop to supplement No. 1 back Barner's 6.4 yards per rush, and in 2013, he demonstrated flashes of brilliance as a top back.
But with the depth that the Ducks have at running back, their ground game is going to be just fine without him.
Thomas never fully materialized as a feature back. A Week 5 ankle injury that kept him out of four games and led to an early exit in another, no doubt affected Thomas' ball-carrying ability. He averaged eight yards per carry in the first three games of the season, including his three-touchdown romp at Virginia, but he couldn't reach the six-yard mark in any of his appearances after returning.
By season's end, his rushing average was exactly the same as backfield comrades Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.
Oregon's rush offense had an opportunity to adjust to life without Thomas as the game-breaker. Tyner and Marshall both showed star potential at times, a healthy quarterback Marcus Mariota concluded 2013 with his best rushing performance of the season, and 5-star prospect Royce Freeman promises to add a power element to the Ducks' ground attack.
Mariota may feel more of a squeeze in the passing game without his trusty target out of the backfield, as Thomas led the Ducks in receptions in 2012.
However in 2013, as Thomas' repetitions at running back increased, he was used less as a receiver. He had six games out of 13 with at least four receptions in 2012, but hit that same benchmark just three games out of nine this season.
In that regard, Thomas was at times a man without a country. Because his skill set was so diverse and he could be plugged into any number of roles, he had no offensive specialty.
Consider wide receiver Bralon Addison, who took on a more prominent role and handled some of the responsibilities Thomas carried as the dynamic target in space. Addison wasn't also bearing the burden of carrying the ball 10-plus times a game, much as Marshall focused on his 15 or so rushes while also going out for passes.
The area where Thomas could perhaps most be considered a specialist is as a kick returner, and that may very well be where his void is most felt. Starting in 2006 and through the 2010 season, Ducks kick returners combined for exactly one touchdown. Thomas ran at least one kickoff back for a score in each of his three seasons in Eugene.
Keanon Lowe, Troy Hill, B.J. Kelley and the departing Josh Huff also fielded kickoffs in 2013. Not only does the Duck who takes over that job full time have a high standard to meet, but he'll also be vital to Oregon's game plan.
A home-run threat in the return game gave Oregon's special teams an advantage that was parlayed into a decided offensive advantage via field position. FootballOutsiders.com reports Oregon enjoyed one of the best starting field position averages in the nation, and Thomas' electric kick-returning contributed.
A longer field can impact offensive coordinator Scott Frost's play-calling, in turn having a more profound effect on the Ducks offense than anything Oregon loses from Thomas as a running back.
Of the multiple replacements Helfrich is plugging into Thomas' void, this is probably the biggest.