Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Oregon junior Darron Thomas.
• Typecasting. It's easy to forget now, but this time last year, quarterback was supposed to be the weak link at Oregon, the single, glaring hole on the depth chart that halted the Ducks' emergence as Pac-10 overlords in the wake of two-year starter Jeremiah Masoli's unceremonious exit from the team. And Darron Thomas was hardly marked for stardom: As a tall (6-foot-4), lanky scrambler with an impressive list of scholarship offers and solid reviews from the recruiting sites, he looked like the reincarnation of former Duck star Dennis Dixon on paper, and just standing around in his uniform. But really, how far can a team go behind a guy coming off a redshirt year, whose initial goal for the season was to work his way up to second string?
Answer: All the way to the first perfect regular season in school history and within two seconds of a national championship. Why would anyone ever doubt it? As it turned out, Thomas was exactly what Masoli was in Oregon's up-tempo, spread-oriented offense before him, and what Dixon was before him, and what all of Chip Kelly's quarterbacks have been sine he showed up in Eugene to remake the offense in 2007: Athletic, versatile and enormously productive at the controls of the most productive attack in the Pac-10, four years running. The only real question for Thomas as he hits his fourth year in the system is whether there's another peak in sight.
• At his best... Thomas isn't the most imposing athlete in terms of his size, speed or arm, and may not be bound for NFL riches, but there's nothing he didn't do well enough last year to keep the Ducks from averaging more yards and more points than any other offense in America. He was accurate enough to complete upwards of 61 percent of his passes; efficient enough to finish right on Andrew Luck's heels for the best touchdown-to-interception ratio and overall efficiency rating in the Pac-10; and dangerous enough downfield to connect on 29 completions — just one behind Luck, on fewer attempts — that covered at least 25 yards. In the Ducks' biggest games of the season, he lit up Stanford for 238 yards with three touchdowns, dropped a 288-yard, four-touchdown bomb on USC and put 363 with a pair of scores in the BCS title game.
But everything in Kelly's attack begins with making the defense account for the quarterback as a legitimate running threat on the zone read, and if Thomas isn't exactly Vince Young in the shotgun, he can still make an overpursuing D look like fools in concrete cleats:
Where the running game is concerned, Thomas' role amounts to a very effective backup tailback — he scampered for 570 yards last year before sacks, on more then 6.5 per carry — who can pull up and throw at any time. Like all good zone read quarterbacks, he's also a master of creating that split second of indecision at the mesh point, which is all a back as explosive as LaMichael James needs to get a step ahead of the defense, or for the Ducks' considerably less explosive receivers to get on top of the secondary for the aforementioned big plays downfield.
• At his worst... Describing a guy as a "system quarterback" makes no sense outside of a draft perspective — as long as he's effective within the system, who cares? — but Thomas hasn't separated himself as the kind of unflappable field general who can keep the engine firing when some of the other cogs start to get gummed up. Not that he's had many opportunities: The only defenses that managed to present more than a speed bump to the Ducks' ground attack in 2010 were Arizona State, California and Auburn. The trips to Tempe and Berkeley, though, were also Thomas' lowest-rated passing performances of the regular season, and he served up a pair of early interceptions and a fumble in the face of relentless pressure in the championship game. For all the yards he put he eventually hung on the Tigers, Thomas made no impact whatsoever as a runner and was generally inconsistent and indecisive enough between a handful of big plays to leave points on the board on six separate drives that fizzled in Auburn territory.
The two teams that were most effective in keeping the Ducks off the scoreboard — Cal and Auburn — were the two that most effectively held James in check and put consistent pressure on Thomas as a passer. (The Bears and Tigers were the only defenses that sacked him more than once.) Oregon's passing game remains overwhelmingly horizontal, based on constraint plays to keep the defense honest with occasional shots downfield; Thomas isn't going to consistently challenge a secondary deep. His potential issues under fire are also magnified by the exit of three senior offensive linemen with nearly 100 career starts between them, two of whom (Jordan Holmes and Bo Thran) go out as All-Pac-10 picks.
• Fun Fact. Thomas joined an illustrious list of nose-picking quarterbacks on national television in the seconds leading up to Auburn's decisive field goal in January, digging deep for what may be the single most chronicled on-camera nose pick in the entire YouTube library:
You can't find an individual clip of Thomas' second quarter touchdown pass to a shockingly wide open Lavasier Tuinei at USC, but you can find a surprisingly catchy song about him picking his nose.
• What to expect in the fall. It's a little terrifying and frankly impossible to imagine Oregon somehow becoming more productive than it was in 2010: Forty-seven points on 530 yards of total offense per game are not exactly replicable numbers, even for Chip Kelly, especially when he's breaking in five new starters. There's going to be an inevitable hitch or two, and probably a small step back, statistically.
As far as the final record goes, though, Thomas will have as much as anyone to do with keeping it pristine by limiting mistakes in big games (six of his nine interceptions came in the four games the Ducks played against teams that finished above .500) and continuing to exploit defenses' attention to the running game with the occasional downfield strike. Assuming James and his fellow speedsters are in for another big year, it's the rare occasion that a sideways step from a quarterback's sophomore to junior seasons sounds just fine. But only if the director and supporting cast can keep him in his comfort zone.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.