In addition to the Ducks' loss at home to USC last season, there are a couple other reasons many believe Oregon's time at the top of the Pac-12 has come to an end. The loss of the most successful quarterback in program history will set the Ducks back, but some point to the loss of LaMichael James as the main reason for a potential step back.
When James was in Eugene, he was perhaps the most explosive player in program history. He might have been the most explosive player in the country as well. Then, along came De'Anthony Thomas, who will help take his place in 2012. As a freshman in 2011, Thomas instantly became the most explosive player on the Ducks and, arguably, in the country.
If James was indeed the system back some believed him to be, replacing him with Kenjon Barner and Thomas should be no problem at all. Add in the top high school running back on the West Coast, Byron Marshall, in this past recruiting class, and the Ducks have a potentially elite trio of options in the backfield.
Talent is clearly not an issue. If there is a question, it is depth. Barner has been a star in his own right during his career. Like Barner, Thomas is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as well. Marshall might need some time to adjust to the college game as a true freshman.
Barner has never carried the load on his own for more than a game or two at a time in his career. While Thomas might be the most explosive player in the country, he isn't necessarily a full-time running back.
Kenjon Barner: Barner already sits at No. 14 on the Ducks all-time rushing list with only a few starts to his credit. With another 1,061 yards, a total he will likely eclipse by the time the Ducks face USC in November, Barner will pass Jonathan Stewart to become No. 3 on the Ducks all-time rushing list. A season total of 1,456 yards will see him pass Derek Loville and become the No. 2 rusher in program history.
There is no questioning Barner's talent level. In fact, some NFL scouts see him as a better NFL prospect than James. The only real question regarding Barner is whether he can carry the ball 25 times a game.
De'Anthony Thomas: By now, Thomas is no longer a secret to college football fans. A breakout performance in the Rose Bowl versus Wisconsin, where Thomas has 155 yards and two touchdowns on just two carries, ensured that "The Black Mamba" would surprise no one in 2012. As a freshman, Thomas totaled 595 yards rushing on only 55 carries and 605 yards on 46 receptions. Thomas also amassed 1,035 yards in the return game, giving him a total of 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 total touchdowns.
Even more so than Barner, durability is the question for Thomas if he sees an increase in reps at running back. What will likely happen is that Thomas will get between 5-10 carries a game at running back and get about 20 total touches a game.
Byron Marshall: Widely regarded as the top high school running back on the West Coast, Marshall will come in and be expected to play right away for the Ducks. At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, Marshall is already as big as any back currently on the Oregon roster. His development will be key for the Ducks, especially if Barner or Thomas get hurt.
Other options: At 5-foot-11, 200-pounds, wide receiver Josh Huff played everything in high school. With his history of drops at receiver, his skills would be a good fit at running back if an emergency running back is needed.
At 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, Ayele Forde is a former walk-on that received plenty of mop up duty last year. Forde proved capable of getting the job done when his number was called, rushing for 176 yards and two touchdowns in 2011.
Injuries aside, there is no reason to see the Ducks' run at the top of the rushing charts to come to an end any time soon. While the depth may not be what it has been in recent years, there isn't a drop off in talent.