'Black Mamba' makes mythic plays

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
11:00
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According to National Geographic, "Black mambas are fast, nervous, lethally venomous, and when threatened, highly aggressive. They have been blamed for numerous human deaths, and African myths exaggerate their capabilities to legendary proportions. For these reasons, the black mamba is widely considered the world’s deadliest snake."

Which reminds me: Did I tell you about the time Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas caused a sonic boom at Autzen Stadium? He caught a kickoff against USC and -- just as he crossed the Trojans' 30-yard line -- BOOM! It shook the stadium as he strutted into the end zone. I thought we were under attack.

Or what about when the player known as the "Black Mamba" caught that screen pass against Nevada and the field caught on fire behind him as he jetted for a 69-yard TD? I wouldn't lie to you.

Or that time Thomas hypnotized Washington State safety Tyree Toomer at the end of a 45-yard screen pass for a TD? He said to Toomer, "Look right, look left, look right, look left!" As Thomas went left, went right, went left, went right.

[+] EnlargeOregon's De'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesFreshman De'Anthony Thomas was Oregon's leading receiver with 42 catches for 571 yards and nine scores. He also rushed for 440 yards and five more scores, while adding two return TDs.
Kobe Bryant calls himself the Black Mamba, and that's cool. He's a righteous basketball player. But Snoop Dogg started calling Thomas the Black Mamba when Thomas was playing Pop Warner ball way back in 2005. Against Snoop's team.

Advantage: Thomas.

"I guess I'm deadly on the field," said Thomas, the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, when asked for the significance of the nickname.

No doubt. While USC QB Matt Barkley is the conference's leading Heisman Trophy candidate heading into 2012, plenty of smart money next preseason will chase Thomas. Is there a more electric player in college football? No, because no other college football player can send bolts of electricity from his eyeballs.

OK. We made that one up. But Thomas' résumé of thrills, numbers and prone defenders lying in his wake is electrifying.

He was the Ducks' leading receiver with 42 catches for 571 yards and nine TDs. So 21.4 percent of his receptions ended up in TDs. USC receiver Robert Woods also is a spectacular player (see all of his All-American honors). But his 15 TDs on 111 receptions breaks down to a TD rate of just 13.5 percent.

But that's not all!

Thomas was the Ducks' third-leading rusher with 440 yards. He averaged 8.3 yards per carry and scored five TDs.

But that's not all!

Thomas also led the Pac-12 in kickoff returns with a 27.7 average, including two TDs. His 16 touchdowns not only set a school record for a freshman, no other freshman in the nation scored as many. He was Oregon's first true freshman to earn team MVP honors, too, which he shared with tight end David Paulson.

"The first thing that jumps out is his athletic ability -- how quickly he can do things," Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. "Not only is he fast, but his ability to change direction is incredible. It's how quick he gets out of cuts. There's a suddenness to him. I don't think people appreciate it until they really see him in person. Then they're like, 'Wow!'"

Thomas' elusiveness became legendary during his career at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, but his figurative shake-and-bake move on USC just before signing day also inspired a few "Wow" reactions. He grew up a USC fan and was a longtime commitment before switching to the Ducks the final week before signing day.

"It still doesn't make sense," USC coach Lane Kiffin said before the teams' met in Eugene on Nov. 19. "It was very strange."

Thomas has been consistent when explaining his change of heart, which has inspired more than a few unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. He liked USC until he fell in love with Oregon after a visit.

As for trading the Southern California sunshine for the tenacious winter drizzle of the Northwest, Thomas is unbowed.

"To me the weather, it doesn't really affect me," he said. "I adapted to it real fast. It doesn't bother me."

If junior running back LaMichael James departs for the NFL draft, as expected, Thomas should step into the role of primary playmaker for the Ducks, though James' backup, Kenjon Barner, is hardly chopped liver. Kelly, known for his offensive creativity, said Thomas will continue to play a hybrid role that allows him to challenge a defense from many spots on the field.

"That's the fun part for us," Kelly said. "How many ways can we get him into the right spots to exploit a matchup without him getting confused? He's done a great job of it so far, but we haven't put everything on his plate, either."

As in: What happens if Thomas touches the ball 200 times instead of 126? Zeus himself might come down from Mount Olympus and hang out with Phil Knight in his Autzen Stadium box to see such a thing.

Thomas seems pretty blasé about his budding stardom. Sure, he and Snoop keep in touch. Heisman talk? It will be great motivation next season. Does he have a favorite play from this season? Nope. Does he watch YouTube highlights of himself? Nope.

Those spectacular plays that sometimes inspire mythologizing are just what Thomas does.

"It's always been the way I was," he said. "Sometimes I don't even know where the moves come from. It's just playing the game of football and having fun."

Did you hear about the time a Pac-12 defensive coordinator spontaneously combusted while thinking about Thomas? Well, that's because it hasn't happened, silly.

Not yet, at least.

Ted Miller | email

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