Oregon's Three-Headed Attack
By Jackson Long
It was first-and-goal on the 3-yard line. The Oregon Ducks were already up 21 points on the visiting California Golden Bears, with the fourth quarter just underway. A score here would no doubt seal the game and send the Oregon starters to the bench.
Oregon star running back LaMichael James already had 239 rush yards, his second best rushing effort in his career (just short of the all-time Oregon record of 288 yards that James had set one week earlier). If he could reach the end zone on this play, his night would likely be over, with one of his highly capable substitutes replacing him. James went into motion from the left side of the quarterback to the right and took a handoff up the middle. He hit a wall that was Cal defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil, who ripped the ball loose from James, simultaneously wrenching James' elbow to the ground. James was called down on the play but none of the nearly 59,000 fans in attendance were paying attention to the referee's call. Instead the usually raucous fan base of Autzen Stadium was completely silent, watching in horror as their Heisman-candidate tailback writhed in pain on the ground.
The scene was eerily familiar to a night in November of 2007 in the same stadium. On that night, with the Ducks up 19 points at the very beginning of the fourth quarter against Arizona State, then-Heisman hopeful quarterback Dennis Dixon went down with a knee injury that one game later ended his college career and the Ducks' shot at a national title. As James was attended to by medical staff, fans shuddered when the gruesome replay of James' elbow being dislocated took them back to Dixon's ill-fated injury four years ago.
But the two people in the stadium that seemed most concerned were his fellow runningbacks, two of his best friends, and a pair of young men he calls his brothers: Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas.
"To be honest I started to cry when LaMike went down, because when LaMichael is on the field he is my motivation," said Thomas. "When Kenjon or him make a big run it makes me want to break a big one. So without him, it's not 'What are we going to do?' it just means Kenjon and me got to step up for the team."
Said James: "You never know when you are going to go down with an injury or when this game will be over for you. Nobody can play football forever."
For a minute, football was put aside, and it was evident by looking at all three tailbacks' faces that these three runners were not only amazingly talented, but also amazingly close.
LMJ: LaMichael James ushers in a change of pace for Oregon rushers
In 2006 and 2007 Jonathan Stewart was the starting tailback for the Ducks, weighing in at 235 lbs. Jeremiah Johnson weighed around 210 pounds as the next season's starter. LeGarrette Blount was a complimentary back in 2009 and the named starter for the 2010 season, packing 245 lbs. After the first game of the 2010 campaign, Blount was suspended and redshirt freshman LaMichael James was thrust into Oregon's starting role. This is when the mold was broken.
James, at the time, weighed less than 180 pounds and was seen as anything but a bruiser. That meant nothing to James, who in nine of the next 11 regular season games, ran for over 115 yards a game, tallying 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns by season's end. A star was born.
"I prepared like a starter even when I wasn't a starter," said James. "I never took any reps off."
In last season's run to the national championship game, James racked up just over 1,900 all-purpose yards with 24 scores. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and was the winner of the Doak Walker trophy, given to the nation's top running back.
Coming out of high school, James was a four-star recruit out of Texarkana, a city of 35,000 on the Texas side of the Texas-Arkansas border and within an hour's drive of Louisiana and Oklahoma. Needless to say, football in that part of the country is important.
"Football was something fun to do, an outlet from school and hanging out all day," said James.
James had more than just fun with football, receiving high ratings and accolades all over the place while setting plenty of records at Liberty-Eylau High School (later to be broken by current Oregon true freshman running back Tra Carson).
James committed to Oregon in January of 2008.
KJB: Kenjon Barner adds the 1B to LaMike's 1A
Kenjon Barner's route to becoming one of the most acclaimed backfield mates in the nation was much less direct than for James.
"Football was never really my thing. Basketball was always my thing, football just happened," said Barner. "I remember my dad one morning came in and waking me up for a basketball practice and I told him I didn't want to play basketball anymore, I wanted to go to the NFL. I had never played football a day in my life up to that point. My dad called me crazy."
Barner had a phenomenal career at Notre Dame High School in Riverside, Calif., not only as a running back but also as a defensive back.
He was recruited to UO to play in the Ducks' secondary and to be utilized as a special teams dynamo.
"When I came in I never expected to play running back," said Barner. "But once they moved me, I thought 'This is home.'"
Barner redshirted the same year as James, and in 2009, when James became the starter, Barner moved from third to second string. During the 2009 season Barner proved to be a more than competent substitute, rushing for 366 yards on 61 carries for three touchdowns. As a kick returner Barner was incredible, racking up over 1,000 kick return yards, a new school record.
In 2010 Barner built on his success, gaining nearly 700 yards in rushing and receiving combined, with eight trips to paydirt.
DAT: De'Anthony Thomas becomes the unlikely Duck
If Kenjon Barner was a surprise contributor in the backfield for Oregon and LaMichael James' name became a household one only after his redshirt season, then true freshman De'Anthony Thomas was the known commodity of the bunch as far as potential. But when it came to Thomas actually playing for the Ducks, that is a different story.
Heralded as the next fastest thing to come out of L.A. since his days in Pop Warner football, De'Anthony Thomas' talent has been seen coming from afar. His rise to the Southern California football elite even gained him the fandom and eventual mentorship of rap legend Snoop Dogg.
At Crenshaw High School, Thomas was an absolute superstar on both sides of the ball. He was rated as both the number one athlete and number one cornerback in America in the 2010 class. Committed to USC since May 2010, Thomas would likely play defense for the Trojans, possibly getting a shot at running back. In one of the biggest shockers in recent recruiting history, Thomas switched his commitment in February of this year, in the waning hours of signing day, to play at Oregon, where he was promised a chance to play running back.
Waiting In The Wings: Barner and James bide their time as redshirts
The arrival of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner to Eugene was a quiet one. Under head coach Mike Bellotti, Oregon had seen itself climb to the top of the Pac-10 and inside the top 10 of the polls in 2000 and 2001. But for the next five seasons the Ducks didn't crack the top 10 of any lists.
2007 was Bellotti's best shot at an elusive national title game berth, but an injured knee for Heisman hopeful quarterback Dennis Dixon pulled the stars out of alignment once again and the Ducks were denied a top-10 ranking for the sixth consecutive season. Chip Kelly was brought in as offensive coordinator for that dream-dashed 2007 season and announced as head coach-in-waiting in December of 2008. The Ducks would finish 9th in the final AP Poll that year.
While the Ducks chalked up a 10-3 record and a win in the Holiday Bowl in 2008, James and Barner were waiting. Both players redshirted that season, practicing with the team every day and learning Kelly's complicated spread-option offense. James and Barner got bigger, faster and closer to each other every day.
"I would not say Kenjon and me are best friends," said James. "He is more like a brother to me."
And Then There Were Two: A pair of young backs take the stage
Kelly became head coach of the Ducks in 2009, while James and Barner became superstars via his offensive scheme. The proclaimed brothers took the college football world by storm as one of the most productive backfield tandems in America.
They led the Ducks to two consecutive BCS bowl appearances, including the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, while accumulating monstrous stats and impressive accolades. But there were downs during the incredible run. Oregon lost in both BCS appearances (including the 2010 Rose Bowl), James went through off-season scrutiny and a one game suspension for a domestic dispute with an ex-girlfriend, Barner suffered a scary concussion that sidelined him for two weeks and both had occasional subpar performances.
Yet the two young men stayed strong through their support of each other.
"We went through so much together on and off the field, Kenjon and I. He has always been there for me and vice a versa," said James. "We do everything together."
And it is through their competition on the gridiron that both James and Barner have improved their skills.
"There is a competitive edge, but we don't let that competiveness come between us. We push each other and bring the best out of each other," said Barner. "I see LaMichael go out and I think when I go out there it's my turn to up him. But off the field it's a typical friendship; we laugh, enjoy each other."
Despite both having almost the same physical attributes and similar playing styles, they learn a lot from each other, on the field and off.
"Kenjon is sensitive," said James. "He likes country music. He is that person who isn't what he looks like. You look at Kenjon and he is a strong football player, but he has a different side. He is very caring, very loving."
"From LaMichael, what I take is being confident in what he does," Barner said. "He is resilient, there is nothing that is going to stop him from pursuing what he wants."
The pair also prides themselves on their differences, not shying away from their backgrounds by any means.
"We come from different places but we like to share with each other how things are back where we are from," James said.
"We are from different worlds for sure," Barner said.
"I give Kenjon a hard time because he went to Catholic school. I couldn't have gone to a private school," James laughed. "Kenjon's life is very different from mine as far as back home."
The Catalyst: The addition of the Black Mamba
Just when Oregon's backfield looked like it couldn't get any better after the 2010 season, De'Anthony Thomas' (nicknamed the Black Mamba) announcement that he would join the potent Ducks' backfield electrified everyone, even the two players he would be potentially taking playing time from.
"I was actually excited (when De'Anthony chose Oregon)," said Barner. "I have never been a guy to keep competition away. When he got up here I took him under my wing and we are blessed to have him."
When Thomas arrived in Eugene for summer workouts, his potential was easily visible. By the time the Ducks entered fall camp, it was obvious he would be seeing plenty of playing time for the Ducks in 2011.
"I didn't expect anything. I just felt that I would have to come work hard in the summer and I did and it showed," said Thomas.
During fall camp the experienced duo of James and Barner did their best to bring Thomas up to speed as quick as possible and since then the friendship of the three has blossomed.
"Our relationship off the field is two big brothers and a little brother," Barner said. "Me and LaMichael have been together for going on four years. You add De'Anthony in and we've got another brother."
"We really mentor De'Anthony," said James. "When Kenjon and I got here we were playing the same position as him now; running back, receiver, whatever the team needs. So we just try to keep De'Anthony going and help him out."
And the support of the elder tailbacks hasn't gone unrecognized by Thomas.
"LaMike is a great player, I learn from him," said Thomas. "I spend time with Kenjon almost every day. He picks me up to take me to practice, and we hang out pretty much every day. They both teach me how to deal with girls, how to take care of myself and to be responsible."
It is evident in speaking with 18 year-old De'Anthony and observing him that he is still very much a kid, something James and Barner both recognize, yet make an effort to learn from.
"He is the sweetest, most innocent kid I have ever met. He is truly a kid, he lives his life to the fullest and shows me not to take everything too seriously," Barner said.
"De'Anthony, he is always happy. Every time you see him he is smiling. I have never seen him upset. And he is a phenomenal player that when it is time to play he gives his heart," said James.
LSU: Disappointment for the newly minted trio
The three "brothers" took the field together for the first time on Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas to battle the then-3rd ranked Louisiana State Tigers.
The Oregon offense was stifled. James rushed for only 54 yards, Thomas accounted for 22 and Barner managed just seven. The rushing effort was so poor that each of the three backs had more receiving yards than they did on the ground.
Thomas fumbled twice, one of which was returned for a LSU score, while James and Barner both left the game with different injuries. The Ducks lost 40-27.
How the trio would respond would be a testament to their strength.
Revival: Three brothers pick up speed
In the Ducks next three games, Oregon had an easier time against Nevada, Missouri State and Arizona. They headed into the team's first conference home game against Cal on a roll. James had rushed for 560 yards and six scores in the previous three games, with Barner having missed two games and Thomas making more of an impact in the receiving game.
When James went down against Cal, the time for Barner and Thomas to show up had come.
"I didn't worry about them stepping up. I knew before that those two guys are tremendous players. I knew they would come in and get the job done," said James.
They got the job done.
Heading into Oregon's matchup against third-ranked Stanford, all three of the Ducks' speedster tailbacks are in prime form. James has 1,363 rushing, receiving and return yards for 11 touchdowns while Barner has 785 total yards for nine scores. Thomas is the most versatile in the statistics department with 349 rushing yards, 382 receiving yards and 573 kick return yards, having crossed the goal line 12 times.
Sharing The Load: Three backs, one team
With all the talent, speed and versatility it is surprising each of the three friends have been able to share the ball. But James, Thomas and Barner all seem to care more about the team than their own benefit.
"I am happy with my role, I feel like when I do get a chance to play it is my chance to contribute to the team," Thomas said.
"We are all friends, we are teammates and whatever is best for the team as far as reps, that's the way I like it. As long as we are winning games I am happy," James said. "I don't care who gets the most reps or the most touchdowns. None of that matters."
The pace, consistency and ease at which each running back spells each other on the field has created a nightmare for defenses.
"All of us are small, fast and elusive so what I always say is that what I bring is being the best Kenjon," explains Barner. "Then you got LaMichael being the best LaMichael and De'Anthony being the best De'Anthony. Those are just our best qualities, all three of us on this team together."
The three friends even agree on who would win in a footrace. Given a hypothetical 100-meter dash, each one of them placed Thomas first with James and Barner finishing so close no one could tell who took second and third.
Defenses and commentators alike have trouble identifying which fleet-footed star is on the field, let alone sprinting down the sideline in a blur. And if LMJ, KJB and DAT aren't already too difficult to differentiate because of their size and speed, it is because they are one unit, one set, one entity. Brothers.