Oregon's leader at quarterback gets passing grade in game management
After a stellar 2010 season in which he led Oregon to the national championship game, Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas began the 2011 season with expectations through the ceiling.
Thomas' overall numbers are about the same as they were last year. In 2010, he started all 13 games, completed 222 of 361 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,881 yards, 30 TDs and nine interceptions, and rushed for 486 yards and five TDs. In 2011, he missed 12 quarters with a knee injury, completed 194 of 316 (61.4 percent) for 30 touchdowns and six interceptions and ran for 205 yards and three TDs in 12 games.
But while his 2011 season might not look better on paper, the 6-3, 215-pound became a more complete quarterback, with a deeper grasp of the playbook and the ability to utilize the weapons around him.
'I have improved a lot,' Thomas says. 'The stats maybe don't look like it. But I've had an improved all-around game because we have changed up the game plan, just working around some of the young guys I've got.
'I did a great job.'
Oregon coach Chip Kelly points more to Thomas' mental development than his physical improvement.
'He's got more experience, a better understanding of what we're trying to do,' Kelly says. 'He manages the game extremely well. He can understand situations.'
Thomas says the game has slowed down for him. That could be one of the reasons why his rushing total is less than half of what it was last season. Thomas took off running 93 times in 2010 as compared to 50 times in 2011.
His handing off the ball more frequently allowed LaMichael James to gain 1,646 rushing yards and score 17 touchdowns and helped Kenjon Barner collect 909 yards and 11 TDs.
'They're running backs,' Thomas says. 'I've done the perfect job of getting them the ball, making sure that I get the defense on me, letting those guys run. Kenjon is close to 1,000 yards rushing, and LaMichael is one of the top running backs (in the nation). It's their job to run the ball, and they've been doing a good job all year.'
A fair assessment of Thomas' 2011 season must take into account that even when he did return from the knee injury he suffered against Arizona State, he was not playing at 100 percent. Wearing a knee brace, he often hobbled while scrambling away from pressure.
Thomas gutted out some games, though.
'We have a film of Darron taking shots and not even flinching when he's got people bearing down ready to drill him,' Kelly says. 'He gets the ball off, but he also puts the ball on the money for big, big plays. That's not a coachable thing. That's just an innate thing he has. He's as tough a kid as I've seen in the pocket.'
Thomas gradually got healthier. And, after Oregon beat UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game, Kelly joked about his quarterback's 40-yard run in the fourth quarter, saying: 'I thought we were going to see an ESPN highlight where he was going to rip the knee brace off. He was kind of like Forrest Gump running down the field.'
Thomas says he is 100 percent for the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 and won't wear a brace against Big Ten champion Wisconsin.
Even though he is healthy and is Oregon's career leader in TD passes with 63, Thomas will not be the headline quarterback going into the game at Pasadena. Badgers QB Russell Wilson has put up big numbers this season, completing 206 of 284 passes for 2,879 yards, 31 TDs and three interceptions.
Thomas says he understands why his name will be spoken much less frequently than Wilson's leading up to the game.
'He gets what he deserves,' Thomas says, of Wilson's publicity. 'He's one of the big-time quarterbacks. I'm happy just to play against him and compete against him.'
Thomas is quick to give the company line of not caring about credit as long as the Ducks win. But he also says he is confident that he will soon receive as much publicity as the nation's higher-profile QBs.
'Mine is coming soon,' Thomas says.
A win over Wisconsin would expedite that process.
'He's still just scratching the surface,' Kelly says. 'But when you're just scratching the surface and you've set a school record for throwing 60-some touchdown passes … he's taken us to two BCS games and he can get better in all aspects.'