Top freshmen 'deserve to play,' and their depth helps
Something strange began happening in the middle of the Oregon Ducks' training camp. Suddenly, coaches and players were not talking much about running back Lache Seastrunk. They were talking about true freshman De'Anthony Thomas.
It has been speculated that Thomas' ascent ahead of Seastrunk on the depth chart was one of the reasons that Seastrunk transferred to Baylor.
Until Seastrunk resurfaces and plays a college football game, the jury is still out about whether Thomas was truly better than him. After the Ducks' first two games, though, it is clear Thomas is destined to do great things for Oregon.
'That guy is awesome,' offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says. 'Not only athletically, but he just shows up and goes to work. He has a smile on his face, and the guy is like the Energizer Bunny in practice.'
With the Ducks' lack of depth, first-year players such as Thomas, fellow true freshman tight end Colt Lyerla and junior-college transfer receiver Rahsaan Vaughn have been thrown into action early -and delivered results.
Thomas caught two touchdown passes in last week's 69-20 home win over Nevada, and Lyerla and Vaughn each caught one TD throw from quarterback Darron Thomas, who had six in about 2 1/2 quarters.
'They're talented players and they deserve to play,' Ducks coach Chip Kelly says of his producing newcomers. 'But, also, we don't have a lot of depth. Sometimes you're going to have to play some guys before they should play.'
Knowing they had holes to fill this season, the Ducks came into fall practice hoping that some of their new players would be ready to contribute immediately. The coaches made a conscious effort to see which players could be ready the fastest.
'There were a lot of guys we were trying to force-feed there early to see who could not only do it, but could learn it,' Helfrich says.
When De'Anthony Thomas showed up in Eugene, there was little doubt he would be a force. Coming out of Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, Thomas broke an eight-month verbal commitment to USC to play for Oregon. A five-star recruit, he has been timed at 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard-dash.
Thomas has played both running back and receiver; at this point, Thomas says he feels most confident as a receiver.
In the Ducks' first game against LSU, he ran for a 4-yard touchdown. Against Nevada, he caught TD passes of 24 and 69 yards. He has gained 103 yards on 12 carries, plus 140 yards on eight catches. He also has 83 yards on five kickoff returns.
Against LSU, Thomas coughed up the ball twice while deep in Oregon territory. Fumbles happen to true freshmen, though. Notre Dame's Tim Brown had his share of fumbles his true freshman season. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
The turnovers never affected Thomas' confidence.
'Even though I did have two turnovers, things happen,' Thomas says. 'But I guarantee things aren't going to happen again. Just hold the ball high and tight, and that's going to get me through.'
Standing next to the 5-9, 170 pounder with cornrows and long eyelashes, one is overwhelmed by just how small -even frail -he looks. Thomas says he plans on hitting the weights, though, so he can continue to do whatever the Ducks ask of him.
'I want to improve more in the weight room,' he says. 'I just want to contribute to the team. What I'm here for is just to contribute. And help the team.'
As good as Thomas is, the Ducks already had a stable of running backs led by LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. What they lacked were receivers.
Lyerla is playing behind an ever-steady David Paulson at tight end. Against Nevada, though, Lyerla proved that he could bolster the Ducks' passing attack. His second catch of the season came when he dove for a ball in the end zone and came up with a 20-yard TD.
The 6-5, 235-pounder out of Hillsboro High came to Oregon last spring in an effort to make his way onto the field as soon as possible.
'It put me ahead of a lot of the other freshmen,' Lyerla says, of his early arrival. 'That's probably the reason I'm playing right now. It really helped me to learn the offense.'
Now that he is playing and succeeding, Lyerla could not imagine having to sit out his freshman season.
'It's definitely not something I wanted to do,' he says. 'I'm glad that I'm here playing. This is what I wanted. This is what I worked for.'
The Ducks are feeling the absence of graduated playmaking receiver Jeff Maehl. But, going into Saturday's 12:30 p.m. home game with Missouri State, it is possible that newcomer Vaughn could become the Oregon program's go-to receiver.
Vaughn has caught just three passes for 45 yards in the first two games. But against Nevada, he started for an injured Josh Huff and showed an ability to take the ball to the house with his 25-yard TD play.
'He's going to be a good player,' James says. 'He just needs to figure it out a little bit. The offensive scheme is really difficult. But I'll give him one more game, and he's going to be a big playmaker for us.'
Coming out of College of San Mateo, the 6-2, 190-pound junior from Fremont, Calif., says he never had any doubt that he could come to a top-flight program like Oregon and make his way onto the field.
'I didn't make it out of high school like I was supposed to, and went to JC, so it was a long journey,' Vaughn says. 'But now that I'm here, I'm ready to take full advantage of it. I felt like coming here would be good for me. Come some place where I could work hard and be fast.'
Vaughn stops just shy of guaranteeing that Duck fans will see him crossing the goal line a lot more this season.
'I'm just going to keep working hard and doing my part every day,' Vaughn says. 'Make sure they keep seeing more and more touchdowns for me.'
Now that everyone has seen how good Thomas, Lyerla and Vaughn can be, Helfrich wants them to make standout performances from them a habit.
'All of those guys have done really good things in spurts,' Helfrich says. 'Now they just need to be more consistent.'