CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- As Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas made his way to the locker room following the Ducks’ 59-10 win at Virginia, he stopped to sign his autograph for one of the many Oregon fans still lingering after the game.
It was quite fitting that he was asked to sign a pair of sneakers.
Thomas, once a high school track star, was again nearly impossible to catch. He only carried the ball 11 times, and it was more than enough touches to rack up 124 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. Some outside the program have wondered if the 5-foot-9 Thomas can be an every-down back for the Ducks, if he can run in the footsteps of his predecessors, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. The answer? Thomas doesn’t need to carry the ball 20 times to be a dynamic leading rusher. His versatility is his trademark, and he again showcased it with his ability to line up as a receiver, run between the tackles, and also return kicks. It was the second straight week that Thomas ran for over 100 yards. This week, he lined up more as a receiver than he did in the season opener against Nicholls State.
Next week against Tennessee?
“We’re going to change what we do every week so people can’t figure us out,” said offensive coordinator Scott Frost.
Keeping Thomas’ role a mystery is as much a part of the game plan as scoring at warp speed. Thomas didn’t return punts against UVa, but he can do that, too, and Frost said not to rule that out this season, either. One role that won’t change for Thomas -- being a leader as some of the younger backs like Thomas Tyner continue to develop.
As far as Thomas is concerned, he’s more than happy to continue sharing the load.
“It was great just to be out there, switching in the backfield, just showing off all our weapons,” he said. “It’s a great feeling just to get in there, hop out and let the other guys get touches. That’s the best thing about it, we’re very strong in the backfield. I feel like it doesn’t matter if Byron is in there, Thomas is in there. I just feel like everyone is going to get positive yardage and it’s going to help our offense.”
Oregon has now racked up 850 rushing yards in two weeks. Tyner, a true freshman, ran for a three-yard touchdown on the first play of his collegiate career. It was Thomas, though, who made Virginia’s defense dizzy. His back-to-back touchdowns in the first quarter gave Oregon a 21-0 lead, including a 40-yard burst.
“We felt good about the matchup of getting our playmakers the ball in space today, so getting him on the edge and letting him create in space, that was a big part of our game plan.” Frost said. “There were several times during the game where, once he got the edge, he was tough to bring down. We want to protect him a little bit. He’s not the kind of back we want to get the ball to up the middle 20 times a game. He’s kind of our knockout punch. We want to get him the ball in situations where we think he can make a big play and he answers the bell every time.”
Just ask Virginia.
“It’s pretty tough,” Virginia senior defensive tackle Brent Urban said of defending Thomas. “It’s the kind of thing where you need guys to get up the field and contain him and make sure he doesn’t get the edge on us.”
Thomas had the edge.
He averaged 11.3 yards per carry. There were only four games last season in which Thomas got double-digit carries. Coach Mark Helfrich said he doesn’t ever want to have to answer how much Thomas can handle because that would mean he was injured.
“It’s kind of like, how many pitches can a right-hander throw?” Helfrich said. “You don’t want to get to that magic number where he needs Tommy John surgery.
“We want the ball in his hands. We were trying to make a concerted effort from the first play to try to create some space, whether it’s the screen game as a receiver, or movement guy. He likes to be that guy, kind of a moving target. We need the ball in his hands and we talk all the time about ways to move him, line him up and get him the ball.”
How and where is anyone’s guess.