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Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Pac-12 owns the dual-threat back

By Ted Miller

Typically, offensive coordinators hand the ball to their running backs and pass the ball to their receivers. When they switch roles, it's just for a change of pace, such as a screen pass or a reverse.

That is how it is in most college football conferences. But not the Pac-12.

Only five returning FBS players ran the ball and caught passes for at least 400 yards last season. Only three played in AQ conferences. And all three of those came from the Pac-12.

Heck, two came from Arizona State -- Marion Grice and D.J. Foster -- which is why this information comes from the Sun Devils sports information department.

The third, as you might have guessed, is Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas.

Thomas rushed for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He caught 45 passes for 445 yards and five scores. He also returned a punt and kickoff for a TD, the latter, notably, taking place on the first play of the Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State.

Grice, while not amassing fancy-pants plays on special teams, was essentially Thomas' statistical match. He rushed for 679 yards and also scored 11 TDs and hauled in 41 passes for 425 yards and eight scores.

As for Foster, he rushed for 493 yards and two TDs and caught 38 passes for 533 yards and four TDs. His 14.0 yards per reception registering as very receiver-esque.


So why this concentration in the Pac-12? We could just say "general awesomeness," but that's not very insightful.

Well, for one, both Oregon and Arizona State use run-first spread schemes, which tend to help multiple running backs put up rushing numbers. Thomas was All-American Kenjon Barner's understudy. Barner, by the way, caught 20 passes for 256 yards and two scores while rushing for 1,767 yards and 21 TDs.

Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked third in the nation in rushing with 315.2 yards per game. Arizona State ranked third in the Pac-12 and 25th in the nation with 205.4 yards per game.

Further, neither Oregon nor Arizona State were loaded at receiver last year. That being the case, it's natural to look for alternative pass-catchers when throwing the ball, just as Stanford has been leaning on its tight ends the past couple of years.

Receiver is perhaps Arizona State's biggest question heading into 2013. Oregon looks much better at the position this spring compared to last, which is good because Thomas is presently slated to replace Barner as the Ducks' primary rusher, though the Pac-12 blog is of the mind he will continue to be as much a "slash" player as anything.

Thomas will be interesting to watch next fall. His 2012 numbers were good but not spectacular. At least they fell short of stratospheric expectations that were inspired by an often breathtaking true freshman season. If, however, he proves durable enough to provide 20 carries per game while still getting plenty of use as a receiver next fall, he could become a top Heisman Trophy candidate. His golden numbers there probably start at 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20-plus TDs.

As for Grice and Foster, they are the lead dogs in a deep backfield. They likely will share the ball and continue to be used in diverse ways, with their numbers becoming impressive as a combination rather than as individuals.

And don't be surprised a couple of other Pac-12 backs push toward these numbers in 2013. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing with 1,929 yards and also caught 36 passes for 303 yards last year, while Washington's Bishop Sankey rushed for 1,439 yards and caught 33 passes for 249 yards. Oregon State's Storm Woods rushed for 941 yards and caught 38 passes for 313 yards.

By the way, a diversity of skills is always a nice thing when the NFL comes calling.