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Ducks say Darron Thomas steady as leader of highly-ranked Oregon team
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas signs an autograph after a football practice last week in Eugene.

EUGENE - One day last week - before police video surfaced of Cliff Harris getting stopped going 118 mph on Interstate 5, with QB Darron Thomas riding shotgun and the smell of marijuana observed by the officer -the most important player on the Ducks' talked about his growth as a player and as a leader.

'Just showing the guys the right way by doing things when we're out,' Thomas said, touting himself as a leader by example. 'Making sure everybody is accountable for each other. That's one thing that the team has been great doing - all the guys have been accountable for each other and making sure everybody is on the same page.'

The mood was quite different when Thomas faced a skeptical media, who translated to the public the quarterback's story of his ride alongside the speeding Harris. Thomas was asleep, he said, and not smoking pot on the hurried transit from Portland to Eugene.

So, you have one of the subplots for the Ducks, who have been associated with various player transgressions and a recruiting scandal during coach Chip Kelly's two years on the watch.

Kelly vigorously defended Thomas, calling him an exceptional leader. Media pundits and fans ripped the coach's comment as extraordinary, given the fact that Thomas has ridden shotgun three times - previously with Eddie Pleasant (street racing) and Jeremiah Masoli (marijuana possession) - in brushes with the law.

'This is a learning situation, growing up, learning from my mistakes and trying to overcome them,' Thomas says. 'I'm not mad at myself at all.'

Neither are his teammates, who seem as though they couldn't care less about Thomas' off-the-field trips with the law as they prepare for the big season opener Sept. 3 against LSU at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

'Stuff happens,' receiver Lavasier Tuinei says. 'People need to get over that. (Thomas) didn't get in trouble. I don't know why they're trying to throw my boy under the bus. He didn't do anything.

'That's put aside. We're trying to focus on the game, and Darron Thomas is a great leader for us.'

'Yeah, he made a mistake off the field, but everybody makes mistakes,' running back Kenjon Barner says, adding that Thomas has shown leadership 'in every way possible on the field. … He's shown great improvement in his leadership skills, and it's awesome to see.'

Tight end David Paulson, a key target in the passing game, says Thomas has improved as quarterback, coming off producing 3,367 yards and 35 touchdowns with his arm and legs. Paulson lauds Thomas for his mental makeup.

'He just always has the right attitude,' he says. 'As a quarterback, you don't really want a guy who gets too high or too low. He always has that kind of steady enthusiasm about him. It's not fake or anything. It's real.

'He's not afraid to get after guys if the offense looks like they're slacking off or not looking very good. He'll be the first one to get on all of us and, if he makes a mistake, he'll be the first one to say 'my bad.' He's a really good teammate.'

Last year, Thomas and then-senior Nate Costa served as mentors for quarterback Bryan Bennett. Now, Bennett is set to play as a redshirt freshman, should Thomas get injured or if the Ducks get into any blowouts. Bennett says Thomas has exhibited good leadership skills, such as being vocal in practice and the locker room.

'It's good that people on the team understand that he's a leader on this team,' Bennett says.

Bennett adds that Thomas didn't address his potential accomplice situation with the team, because 'there's nothing to worry about with that.'

Thirsty for knowledge

Kelly bragged about Thomas' robust leadership skills upon the revelation that Thomas was in the car with Harris during the I-5 incident. A day earlier, Kelly had talked of the junior's growth as a player, saying 'he's got a body of work that he can point to.'

Thomas, who turned 21 and gained weight and took on an aura of more a grown man in the offseason, hasn't been resting on his laurels. He has worked on his footwork, built stronger bonds with Tuinei and other receivers, and accepted the leadership role thrust on him.

It was somewhat easy for Thomas last year, being guided by seniors such as receiver Jeff Maehl and center Jordan Holmes on a team that included 11 seniors and strong character leaders. Thomas quickly earned respect for his toughness and ability to orchestrate the offense.

'Once you think you've arrived from a playing standpoint, you're going to get beat,' Kelly says. 'If you just go to an Indianapolis Colts practice and watch how hard Peyton Manning works and how much input he wants … that's what Darron's great about. He's thirsty for knowledge, and he's always trying to get better.'

Thomas, who hails from Houston, spurned an offer from LSU after originally committing with the Tigers. He went with the Ducks instead, and now he eyes the matchup with LSU and says he will try 'not to put too much on my shoulders - I've got a team to help me.'

He has switched to his high school jersey No. 5 from the No. 1 that he wore through an exhilarating debut against Boise State in 2008, his redshirt season behind Masoli in 2009 and his starting campaign last season, in which the Ducks went 12-1 and lost to Auburn in the BCS championship game.

Now 6-3 and 215 pounds, Thomas says he expects to run the ball more while a receiving corps that is young- outside of Tuinei and Paulson - gets going. The plan is to make himself more diverse and the Ducks' uptempo offense even more lethal. Also, more runs by Thomas could take some heat off lead running backs LaMichael James and Barner.

'This is the third go-round for me (playing), so I'm learning little things that I didn't know,' Thomas says. 'I'm not slacking off, because I know I've got to get better. I just compete with myself, (as opposed) to the people here. I've got more competition around the nation that I've got to compete against.'

Thomas says he and Kelly talked about the Harris incident and 'handled it the way men handle it.'

He drew Kelly's strong support during a wave of public criticism, and Thomas says that didn't surprise him.

'Never thought that guy would stab me in the back, ever,' he says.