James-led ground attack could become even more versatile in 2011 UO season
Averaging 286.2 yards per game last season, Oregon's ground attack was enough to give any opposing defensive coordinator nightmares.
Across the board, the men carrying the ball for the 2011 Ducks -who open camp Aug. 8 -have the ability to make those nightmares even scarier.
LaMichael James and 2010 backup Kenjon Barner are each a year older. Since last season, quarterback Darron Thomas has put on 10-plus pounds. The 6-3 junior now weighs 215 pounds, which may allow him to run the ball more, and better. And, this season should see redshirt freshman Lache Seastrunk - one of the most hyped and now controversial recruits in Oregon history - step onto the field.
'We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it's exciting to know what we could be,' Barner says. 'Since they moved me (from defensive back) to running back, I've thought all along that we've had one of the best running back groups in the nation. With Lache, we're the top running back group in the nation.'
As strong as the tailback group is, the backfield's success will still hinge on James, who gained 1,731 yards last season en route to a seat at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
While the 5-9, 185-pound junior has put last year's success behind him, he will use it as a measuring stick for what he can accomplish this season.
'It's over,' James says, of last season. 'I don't think about it one day of my life. I kind of look at those things like they're surreal, like it didn't happen because it's in the past. I'm going to get better, that's what I think about. If I don't surpass last year, then I didn't get any better. But I'll do better.'
Being better does not necessarily mean James rushing for more yards. He wants to become a more complete back, and that includes the times when the football is not in his hands.
'I don't just have to have the statistics be better,' he says. 'I want to block better, run better, catch better, be a decoy more. I do good things when I have the ball, but I need to get better when I don't have the ball. '
James would do well to take notes from Barner, a 5-11, 180-pound junior who may be the most versatile player in the Ducks' backfield. In his injury-plagued 2010 season, Barner rushed for 551 yards, and had 121 yards receiving, 236 yards on kickoff returns and 132 yards on punt returns.
This season, Duck fans might see Barner line up at slot receiver or in a shotgun pro-set alongside James.
'I see my role as being wherever (the coaches) put me at that particular time,' Barner says. 'Our coaches have faith in my abilities as a football player, so I take it on and am glad they see me as being versatile.'
Neither Barner nor James came to Eugene with nearly the hype of Seastrunk, a five-star recruit who learned the Ducks' playbook from the sidelines last year.
Coach Chip Kelly spent spring practice trying to manage the expectations for his young running back.
'I'm going to say this for the 17,000th time,' Kelly says. 'We have two running backs who have played in a football game for us. So before we anoint someone to the Hall of Fame, we need to find some depth at running back. Kenjon Barner is a proven commodity, LaMichael James is a proven commodity, and then after that, no one's played in a football game for us.'
Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich adds that the fanfare surrounding Seastrunk is 'probably a little bit unfortunate for him. There's this unrealistic expectation for the guy to show up and be Tony Dorsett.'
James says he has been extremely impressed with the skill set of 5-9, 190-pound Seastrunk.
'Lache is really talented,' James says. 'He's probably more talented than me and Kenjon.'
Seastrunk admits he still has some work to do as he continues to familiarize himself with the Ducks' blocking schemes. He is miles ahead of where he was a year ago, though.
'I feel a whole lot better,' says the Temple, Texas native. 'I'm not jumping around like I don't know anything. I know my plays, and it's a little bit easier, so I can be confident in the way I run.'
Seastrunk is confident he will be able to do whatever the Ducks ask of him this season.
'How good I can be?' he says. 'Only time will tell. I don't want to put something on myself. I've got to keep working. But I can expect to do what I have to do. If (the ball) is in my hands and it's crunch time, then we're going to score.'
Seastrunk will have added media attention this season due to his close relationship with Will Lyles, the controversial Texan who received $25,000 from the Ducks while working as a scout. Seastrunk says being dragged into the matter, which could result in penalties for the UO football program, has hurt.
'A little bit,' he says. 'But God had his hand over me.And right now he's taking me through the storm, letting me come out through the light, into the sunshine.It was a little stressful thing.Because people question your integrity.And I have great character. My nana (grandmother) raised a great man.I know I have great character because of her.And I know what type of person I am. And I know I wouldn't do anything to embarrass my school or embarrass my family.'
In addition to James, Barner and Seastrunk, opposing defenses may have to worry more about Thomas this year as they try to stop the Ducks' ground game. Thomas rushed for 486 yards in 2010 but was more of a threat to throw. With a larger frame and redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett in the wings for insurance, Thomas could leave the pocket more often.
'I gained a lot of weight, so I'm going to be able to tote the ball a little bit more,' Thomas says. 'Get the ball out of the running backs' hands a little bit.'
Some questions do exist about the Ducks' 2011 running attack. Oregon will have to rebuild at a few positions on the offensive line. And the team lacks a power running back for short-yardage situations.
Running backs coach Gary Campbell says he will wait - optimistically -before declaring this the finest backfield in school history.
'This is a very good class,' Campbell says. 'And we'll see how it all pans out. You don't know until the end of the year. The performance is what's going to tell the story.'