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Thursday, October 13, 2011
No James? No problem for Oregon

By Ted Miller

The facetious question was met with a laugh from Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson.

So, with Oregon running back LaMichael James almost certainly out with a dislocated elbow for Saturday's game against the Sun Devils, the Ducks' offense is likely hamstrung and lacking weapons, correct?

Hardy-har-har. Replied Erickson, "You name them, they've got them."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly was asked who would replace James and what would change with his offense. He listed his depth chart: Kenjon Barner and a pair of true freshmen, De'Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson.

Kenjon Barner
Kenjon Barner will look to fill the void with LaMichael James out of the lineup.
As for changes, Kelly was his typical, expansive self: "Nothing changes."

Well, he could have just said, "Nothing."

He's mostly right. Sure, James is the nation's best game-breaking back. Sure, he's had more 20-yard runs in his career than any other back in college football. Sure, he is an outstanding return guy and has dramatically improved in the passing game.

But Barner, James' best buddy on the team, is a pretty good backup plan. He'd be the starter for, oh, about 110 teams in the nation.

"Very similar," Kelly said of Barner and James. "I've always felt they were 1 and 1A here. They are both explosive. They both can go the distance."

And, according to Oregon's top-of-the-line stopwatches, Barner and James, who both tip the scales at 195 pounds, are a push in terms of speed and quickness. Barner's electronically timed 40-yard dash is the equal of James', but Barner beat James in the shuttle run and vertical jump.

Barner had 228 all-purpose yards at Tennessee last season, including an 80-yard punt return for a TD. He eclipsed 100 yards rushing twice last season on his way to 551 yards, despite missing two games with a concussion.

So, he's good.

And Thomas looks like a budding star. The multipurpose threat is the Ducks' leading receiver and has accounted for six TDs, four receiving. He averages 7.6 yards per rush and 16.8 yards per reception.

Carson, meanwhile, is the 227-pounder who offers the power element, a la former Duck RB LeGarrette Blount.

"They have got so much depth," Erickson said. "You take Barner, you take De’Anthony Thomas -- who we tried to recruit -- and they’re something special. They’re solid in all areas. They’re not going to try to change anything. They do what they do and they’ve got depth to do it, so you don’t treat it any different whether he plays or whether he doesn’t."

Still, it's hard not to turn more focus to Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas. He's been fairly efficient this season -- 15 TD passes, just two interceptions -- but his 208 yards passing per game ranks 10th in the Pac-12, and he's been far less of a running threat than last season (see: just 18 carries for 100 yards).

"Darron has done a really good job for us, managing the game, taking what the defense gives him," Kelly said. "He's been very efficient with the ball."

Kelly, who's not one to give in to reporters' questions, actually admitted that, yes, Thomas is running less this season due to play calling. (Sure, that's a "duh" admission, but it feels notable for reporters who regularly hear Kelly quibble over every detail: "No, Ted, the sky isn't really blue. That's about Rayleigh scattering -- light waves from the sun passing through our atmosphere.")

Part of that is Thomas taking what the defense gives him. Kelly said Thomas has been making the proper reads in the Ducks' diverse option game. But Kelly also said that he's called fewer zone-read plays this season.

Still, Thomas has shown in the past that he can run the ball well, and that forces a defense to account for him. The Sun Devils' defensive coaches surely asked themselves whether Thomas might be more of a factor in the running game with James out.

"For us to be successful, he has to be a viable running threat," Kelly said. "When defenses have forced him to run, he's done a good job with it."

Of course, the Sun Devils will focus first on containing the Ducks' running game, which they mostly stymied last season. That means Thomas, the passer, likely will need to make plays, and that receivers Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff, as well as De'Anthony Thomas, will need to step up.

Might this be a coming out party for the Ducks' passing game, which has been prolific just once this season, when Thomas passed for 295 yards and six TDs (although on just 19 attempts) against Nevada?

That's the thing about the Ducks: You don't know. Their offense can beat you a lot of ways, even without the nation's best running back.

"You try to make them earn it and keep the big plays down," Erickson said. "You run to the football and tackle."

In other words, nothing changes.