January 14, 2012
Well, here's a surprise: Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas has decided to forgo his senior season to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL, suddenly leaving the Ducks without the veteran pilot of their warp-speed offense. I would ask you to raise your hand if you saw that one coming, but anyone who says they did is lying.
We don't know what Thomas has heard from the league re: his prospects in April's draft, but it's probably not worth bothering to look for his name in any mock drafts. As prolific as he's been at the controls of one of the most prolific attacks in college football, Thomas is also a quintessential "system" quarterback: A good athlete who found a spread option scheme that plays to his strengths as a runner and doesn't ask him to make too many "next level" throws. In plenty of other offenses, he would have been moved to wide receiver; in Chip Kelly's offense — the same offense that's led the conference in yards and points per game five years in a row and made stars of signal-callers as diverse and Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli — it's almost impossible to tell where Kelly's success ends and Thomas' begins.
Still, even on the heels of tailback LaMichael James' decision to take his All-American act to the NFL last week, Thomas' departure may be the biggest possible blow to Oregon's championship ambitions in 2012: No matter how consistent the Ducks have been under Kelly, or how loaded they remain at running back (backup burners Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas combined for 1,534 yards and 18 touchdowns on 7.4 yards per carry), fifth-year quarterbacks with 22 wins in two years and starts in both the Rose Bowl and BCS Championship Game do not grow on trees. The difference between Thomas' seasoned grasp of the spread option and rising sophomore Bryan Bennett's could be the difference between contending for a national championship and ceding Pac-12 superiority back to USC.
It doesn't help that Oregon has to visit the L.A. Coliseum in November, or that Bennett inherits an attack now missing its starting quarterback, leading rusher, two of its top three receivers and two senior linemen with 59 career starts between them. It does help that Barner and Thomas are every bit as explosive as LaMichael James. If Bennett can offer the same continuity at quarterback, the Ducks will be back in the thick of the conference and national championship races and Kelly's reputation as an indomitable offensive guru will be reinforced once again. I promise, though, he hadn't planned to be starting over again just yet.