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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Without Carson, Ducks’ Depth Issues a Worry

Ironically, Tra Carson would have been a better traditional running back than the sublime De’Anthony Thomas, though not a better all-around offensive weapon. For all his unparalleled athletic gifts, Thomas lacks the size to be a LaMichael James-like every down back — though James, it should be added, also had to answer the inevitable questions about his own size, or lack thereof. Note the past tense in the first sentence: As first reported a month ago by the Eugene Register-Guard, Carson is in fact transferring, though Oregon, in a university-issued statement, pointed out that Carson “had not completely dismissed the notion of a return to Oregon until shortly before the end of the winter term.”

You can see why Carson might have had second thoughts. Transferring might guarantee a starting job elsewhere beginning in 2013, but is there another F.B.S. program that could offer an offense quite like Chip Kelly’s at Oregon? Perhaps more than any other attack — outside of Navy, Army and Air Force — Oregon’s system ensures that its backfield puts up crooked numbers on a weekly basis.

Carson was one half of Oregon’s gifted running back haul last February, joining Thomas, and rushed for 254 yards and a touchdown in fairly limited duties as a true freshman. Those numbers would have jumped ahead in 2012, had he opted to remain on campus.

James is gone, taking with him the 247 carries he earned a season ago. No, Carson wasn’t going to leapfrog ahead of his competition to earn the starting nod; regardless, he would have been in line for a serious bump in production, perhaps as the the more traditional second option to senior Kenjon Barner, James’ replacement in the starting lineup.

Carson had his options. Barner is a senior, Thomas a sophomore. Barner was going to carry the load this fall, with Thomas continuing to alter opposing defensive game plans as a running back and a receiver and in the return game. But Thomas isn’t an every down back; Carson, at 6’0, 227 pounds, has 250-carry size.

So he could have waited it out. Barner’s going to have a huge senior season, leaving Carson in a secondary — or tertiary — role, but there’s no reason to think that Carson couldn’t have been Oregon’s lead back in 2013, had he not transferred. With Thomas looking like a potential three-year player — now I’m really getting ahead of myself — Carson could have held a stranglehold on the position as a senior.

His decision to transfer — Carson wonders “what color uniform I’ll be in next year,” which is a great, only-at-Oregon quote — doesn’t hamper the Ducks’ bottom line too much heading into 2012. Barner is going to break out in a major way. Both he and Thomas should be considered Heisman contenders. They’ll do yeoman’s work for Kelly in the running game, but what happens if one suffers an injury?

Carson will be replaced in due time: Oregon signed Byron Marshall in February and has already landed a verbal commitment from five-star back Thomas Tyner for the class of 2013. For this coming season, however, Carson robs Oregon of valuable — and relatively proven — depth at the position, leaving the Ducks relying on Barner and Thomas to remain healthy for the entire season.

Ignore Thomas’ ability to win games as a receiver, or his ability to alter field position in the return game. If he misses, say, a month due to injury, Oregon would need either Marshall or former walk-on Ayele Ford to help pick up the slack in the running game. Marshall, a four-star recruit out of San Jose, won’t arrive until over the summer. For now, Oregon’s depth chart has Ford as the next in line for snaps behind Barner and Thomas.

With Carson officially gone, Oregon would be in trouble if Barner misses an extended period of time due to injury. Thomas had only 55 carries over 14 games last fall, and only twice more than four carries in any game during Pac-12 play — with a season-high of seven carries against Arizona State. If Barner misses September, the Ducks would need to cobble together a strong running game with Thomas, Ford and Marshall splitting Barner’s projected workload.

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  1. Andrew says:

    So Paul (you knew you would get me out of hiding if you put up a piece on Oregon didnt you!)

    With Oregons relatively easy first 5 games, would it behoove Mr. Kelly to give Marshall some very real playing time (10+ Carries) in each of those games? In my brief viewing of Ford I felt that he was overwhelmingly “meh”

    ~Your Extremely Biased Ducks Fan

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Gotta believe that Marshall will not be redshirted now. Oh well, as long as Barner and Thomas stay healthy, if the new QB is solid, we could very well be back in the natty.

  3. WashingtonDCduck says:

    At first glance, Oregon’s depth amongst the running backs certainly raises some eyebrows. As your saying Paul, what if the slender De’Anthony Thomas goes down or even Kenjon Barner who he himself has been dinged up throughout much of his time in Eugene? Ring the alarm, because that’s a major issue for Kelly’s high-octane attack.

    However, a deeper dive into Oregon’s wealth of talented offensive skill guys throws some water on my initial worries. Guys who are currently tabbed as wide receivers, i.e. Miami Florida’s Tacoi Sumler and another red-shirt freshman B.J. Kelly could play hybrid tazer roles like Barner and Thomas have as splitting time at WR / RB. Both guys did this in high school, and the Oregon coaching staff has a great track record of just getting guys the rock in space and finding creases (just think, Barner came to Eugene as a cornerback and started out on the defensive side of the ball with Nick Alliotti’s group).

    I don’t blame Tra Carson. Good kid, but could see the writing on the wall. Oregon’s coaches wanted him there, no doubt about that. However, Marshall – the west coast’s highest tanked running back and top ten nationally, will come in to spell Barner and Thomas this year and the kid everyone who wears green & yellow is really excited about is the prep Tyner out of Portland, Oregon – currently a 5 star recruit who’s the consensus #1 RB in the country and a top 10 overall recruit. It’s scary to picture him alongside guys like Thomas. So, Carson knew his carries may have spiked some this fall but some awfully talented and very touted guys were coming to Eugene.

    With all that said, Oregon’s depth (or lack of) at running back is a concern. The QB situation will be fine, there is a treasure trove of talented and highly recruited offensive lineman to plug in for all-Pac12 guys who left, and the defense will be back to 2010 national title game level but depth at RB seems to flying under the radar for a possible venom that could sink the Ducks, or at least slow Chip Kelly’s Porsche offense down a bit.

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