With Signing Day officially in the books, so is the 2012 campaign for Oregon football. However, as one chapter closes another one opens and it's never too early to take a sneak peek at the upcoming season. DuckTerritory's "Offseason Burning Questions" series takes a look at each position on the Oregon depth chart and addresses the biggest questions at each spot, priming Duck fans for what they can perhaps expect in 2013. Today, the series continues with an examination of the running back position.
Will De'Anthony Thomas have a greater role as a running back next season?
Projected 2013 Depth Chart:
Who receives the bulk of the carries?
Not since the fallout of the ill-fated "Blount Punch" at Boise State in Chip Kelly's first game as Oregon head coach in 2009 have the Ducks had this much relative uncertainty surrounding their running back position. Though immensely talented, Oregon's depth at running back is decidedly unproven, as junior-to-be De'Anthony Thomas will enter 2013 as the team's leading returning ball-carrier coming off his 92 rush attempts in 2012. While Thomas may have the most experience at the position, Byron Marshall figures to be the player that will assume Kenjon Barner's vacated role as Oregon's bell cow in the running game. As a true freshman last season, Marshall rushed for 447 yards and four touchdowns, averaging just over five yards per carry, and demonstrating flashes of brilliance combining great speed with impressive power along the way. At 5'10", 201 lbs., Marshall is best-suited of the returning players to be the Ducks' primary ball carrier, but he will no doubt see competition for carries from not only Thomas, but highly-touted incoming freshman Thomas Tyner, as well. Expect Marshall's edge in experience to earn him the start and the lion's share of the carries in most games to begin 2013, though this could easily develop in to a running back by committee situation as the season wears on.
How much can be reasonably expected out of Thomas Tyner?
This might be biggest question on offense heading in to next season. From a physical standpoint, few would argue that Tyner isn't ready to hit the field and contend for the starting running back position immediately. However, how Tyner adjusts to the speed of the college game and the mental preparation that is required week-in and week-out is something else entirely. Rated as a five-star prospect and the No. 1 running back recruit in country by 247Composite, Tyner will also have to shoulder the weight of incredible expectations that are not normally applied to most true freshmen. It's certainly reasonable to expect Tyner to have a contributing role on offense next season -- perhaps even greater than the one occupied by Marshall in 2012 -- though it may be a little much to expect him to completely supplant Marshall as the primary back. With Marshall and Thomas already on campus and with pelts of their own on the wall, Tyner will have to work for everything he is given. If Tyner commands an even 50/50 split of the carries allocated to him and Marshall, Duck fans should consider that an impressive freshman debut.
With Barner gone, does De'Anthony Thomas assume more responsibility as a running back?
Yes and no. For the simple fact that he is the team's leading returning rusher, one could reasonably conclude that Thomas will have a greater impact in the running game than he did his first two seasons on campus. Yet, if the Oregon coaching staff can help it, Thomas will never be a player who receives 20-25 touches per game, let alone 20-25 carries. It's been proven that Thomas is at his best when the Oregon offense can utilize him in a variety of different ways. Whether he's split out wide, lined up in the backfield, or simply sent in motion, Thomas' mere presence on the field is of immense value to the offense as he commands the defense's attention at all times. However, force feeding him the ball is counter-intuitive to Thomas' and the team's strengths. Thomas is no doubt a home run hitter -- perhaps the best at the collegiate level -- but at 5'9", 176 lbs., don't expect Oregon to overuse him in an effort to swing for the fences.
Does Kani Benoit see the field in 2013?
This will likely be dictated by injuries. If Oregon remains relatively healthy at running back throughout the season, don't be surprised to see Benoit redshirt in an effort to space out the class a little bit. Ultra-productive as a high schooler at Phoenix (Ariz.) Thunderbird, Benoit has the tools to carve out a role for himself on this team next season, yet with talented players like Marshall, Thomas, and Tyner projected ahead of him on the depth chart -- coupled with the experience possessed by walk-ons Ayele Forde and Kenny Bassett -- Benoit is probably best served spending a year in the weight room and in his playbook before hitting the field in earnest as a redshirt freshman in 2014.