- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Oregon running back Kenjon Barner is how most folks want star college football players to be. He's humble but confident. He's quiet but articulate. You don't worry about him turning up on a police blotter. And 1,624 yards rushing, 6.5 yards per carry, 21 touchdowns and consensus All-American honors are pretty cool, too.
He's had a great career, rushing for 3,480 yards and 41 touchdowns while averaging more than 6 yards per carry each of the past four seasons. But after the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3, he'll pass the torch, just as LaMichael James handed it to him.
The question is whether the preternaturally talented De'Anthony Thomas is ready to take it.
Said Barner, "Absolutely. He was up for it this year. There will be no letdown."
The truth is many were more focused in the preseason on Thomas as the Ducks' top weapon. His 16 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2011 -- most of them of the "No he didn't!" variety -- had him near the top of many preseason Heisman Trophy lists. He was a hybrid receiver/running back/return man who was touted as perhaps the fastest player in college football.
He was good this season. Just not as good as 2011. He rushed for more yards (686 versus 595 in 2011) and more touchdowns (11 versus 7), but he was far less effective as a receiver (385 yards versus 605, and four TDs versus nine). His all-purpose yards decreased from 159.6 yards per game to 130.2.
It wasn't so much that he took a step back but that Barner and quarterback Marcus Mariota took a step (or two) forward.
Said Thomas, "I'm not really a stats guy. I just like winning."
Barner was asked a lot of questions at Pac-12 media day back in July about Thomas, but he ended up getting the accolades while Thomas was only an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
The questions focused on Barner in the preseason mostly centered on filling James' large shoes, and whether he could be an every-down back. He answered those inquiries best with his play, but you shouldn't expect him to gloat over some sort of validation.
"To myself? No. Maybe to everyone else," he said. "I don't need validation from anybody to feel a certain way about me. To myself, I didn't prove anything. I knew what I can do. I know what God blessed me with the talent to be able to do."
Those talents best came together during Oregon's win at USC, when he set a school record with 321 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Barner certainly improved his NFL draft stock by coming back for his senior season. The 5-foot-11, 192-pounder could be selected as early as the third round this spring.
"I think that's a great example of a guy that needed that seasoning, to prove that he could be 'the man,'" offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said.
As for Thomas, the groundwork has been laid for him to get more touches in 2012. While Mariota and receiver Josh Huff also will return in 2013, Thomas will be the elder statesmen among the Ducks' running backs, where sophomore Byron Marshall and, very likely, at least one incoming true freshmen also will be in the mix. He will be the leader, the guy the youngsters turn to when the screws tighten.
"I'm ready for it," Thomas said. "Any team I've ever been on, I've been that guy who shows leadership to the team. I'm pretty much prepared for it."
Barner said Thomas didn't require much mentoring, that he arrived in Eugene pretty grounded, despite long being a celebrated athlete at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. Thomas, you might have heard, was dubbed the "Black Mamba" by none other than Snoop Dogg.
"When you have a young guy come in who is as highly touted as De'Anthony was, you expect something different than a guy who is a two- or three-star player," Barner said. "But with De'Anthony, there wasn't too much to tell him. He carried himself in the right way. He wasn't cocky. He wasn't arrogant. He wasn't disrespectful. He was just a great kid."
The message Thomas would hear from James and Barner? Don't get distracted by the bright lights and by the hangers-on.
Said Barner, "You maybe had to open his eyes to some things. He's still a young kid. You kind of have to let him know that not everybody is in your corner."
When asked about his goals, Thomas mostly talks about winning and having fun. He's certainly not the go-to quote that Barner, a member of the Pac-12's All-Interview Team, has become with reporters. But Oregon fans probably will like what he calls his chief focus for the future.
Said Thomas, "Not at all. My goal is to win a national championship."
2dCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill