When it comes to the Heisman Trophy, Oregon's Kenjon Barner has gone from a fringe-level dark horse to an elite-level workhorse who is among the favorites to win the award.
Nobody in Eugene, Ore., is surprised, even if the rest of the nation might be.
Barner is now on most experts' short lists to win the Heisman Trophy, with Heisman Pundit's Chris Huston tabbing him No. 2 on his list of three players who can win the award this year. That list also includes Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein at No. 1 and Alabama QB A.J. McCarron at No. 3.
That Barner is second on Huston's list and on the minds of many Heisman Trophy voters this week is almost entirely the product of his performance Saturday against USC. But Ducks fans knew coming into the season that Barner was this good; he rushed for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns as LaMichael James' backup last season.
On Saturday, he proved he's second to no one in Oregon history in terms of single-game production.
Barner carried the ball 38 times for 321 yards and five touchdowns as the Ducks defeated the Trojans 62-51 in Los Angeles. It was a record-setting day that earned Barner the Walter Camp Foundation's National Offensive Player of the Week Award, which was announced Sunday.
Barner rushed for the most yards ever allowed by a USC defense and also broke Oregon's school record for single-game rushing yardage, a mark set just last season by his good friend James, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers and was on the sideline Saturday to watch the show. James had established the mark by rushing for 288 yards on 23 carries in a 56-31 win at Arizona on September 24, 2011.
On Saturday, Barner one-upped his buddy while looking a lot like him on the field. He showed off his speed and elusiveness, yes, but also his patience in allowing blocks to set up and even a touch of power when necessary, lowering his shoulder and extending runs much the way James often did at Oregon.
Barner is listed at 5 feet 11 inches, 192 pounds, and while his style is certainly more flash than force, he can plunge ahead through the line when necessary.
But the speedy senior is at his best in the open field as he showed in Los Angeles while knifing his way through the Trojans' defense, burning the edges and cutting around would-be tacklers before blazing a trail to the end zone.
Saturday's game was Barner's sixth of the season with at least 100 yards, and his fifth in a row, a streak that started with a 195-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 51-26 victory over Washington State in Seattle on September 29.
Before the Ducks' game at USC, the biggest deterrent to Barner entering the upper tier of most Heisman watch lists had seemed to be a lack of carries, which stemmed mostly from the Ducks rolling out to huge leads early in games and then sitting Barner and the rest of their starters for much of the second half. Heading into Saturday, Barner had carried more than 20 times only once before this season -- he had 34 attempts for 201 yards and three TDs against Fresno State back in September.
If you check out the national rushing leaders through Saturday's games, you'll find Barner listed second in per-game average at 143.89 yards.
In first is Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson, who has 1,341 rushing yards (second to Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch's 1,342) and leads NCAA Division I rushers with a 149-yard average. But Jefferson has done that on 271 total carries, nearly 100 more than Barner's 179.
After finding the end zone five times against the Trojans, Barner has 19 rushing touchdowns, second-best nationally.
As the Ducks look to finish strong and potentially earn a spot in the BCS National Championship Game, they'll no doubt continue turning to Barner to carry the load in the run game. The schedule sets up nicely for him to keep getting carries in bundles, too, instead of sitting out huge chunks of games; Oregon plays Cal at Berkeley, Calif., on November 10, and then finishes the regular season with games against Stanford and Oregon State, two teams that are in the top 15 of the BCS standings.
If he's going to earn an invitation to New York City for December's Heisman Trophy ceremony, Barner will need to have the ball in his hands often over that stretch.
As the rest of the nation found out Saturday, good things will most likely happen if he does.