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Ducks feather nest with talent

With Mariota, Huff, Thomas, stellar UO offense takes shape


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Josh Huff, University of Oregon wide receiver, hopes to lead a deep and varied group of players who can catch balls from quarterback Marcus Mariota and augment the UO running game this season.EUGENE — It’s the same old story at Oregon, where quarterback Marcus Mariota has an ample number of playmakers in one of the country’s best offenses.

Josh Huff, senior receiver, says one of them reigns supreme.

“I know De’Anthony (Thomas) is going to be the focal point of the offense,” Huff says. “He’s a tremendous player. I don’t have a problem with that.”

But, Huff speaks for himself and the likes of receivers Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe, running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, tight end Colt Lyerla, and others when he adds: “I’m going to continue to compete with him. I’m going to compete with other playmakers in the offense, to let the coaches know I can make plays. As long as I’m doing that, everything will settle in.”

Mariota and Thomas are the Ducks’ marquee players, and each could end up being a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Mariota starred with his feet and arm in his first season, putting himself on the national map. Thomas, a hybrid player from Los Angeles, enters his junior year on everybody’s radar. He has put up terrific numbers in two seasons: nearly 4,000 all-purpose yards, with 91 receptions for 1,050 yards and 14 touchdowns, 147 carries for 1,296 yards and 18 TDs and four return scores.

It’s not a stretch to say every team on Oregon’s schedule will have a game plan that attempts to contain Thomas. Strategies worked for a while, and Thomas embarrassingly missed a key block against Stanford, but who could forget his thrilling 94-yard kickoff return for a TD against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, where he crossed the goal line in a sprinter’s finish posture?

Thomas and Marshall return as the only backs with plentiful experience. Coach Mark Helfrich says Thomas likes his versatile role, and the 5-9, 170-pound spitfire concurs.

“I just like being a team player ... (to) contribute to my team and lead by example,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter, as long as we’re putting up points and getting big wins.”

Marshall, a sophomore, and Aloha-bred freshman Tyner will get plenty of work in camp, as the Ducks seek the consistency in their running game that will allow Thomas to be more of a quick-hit weapon.

“Byron, they think he’s a big back, but he has a lot of speed,” Thomas says. “With Thomas (Tyner), we’ll see. ... We’ll have one of the best backfields in the nation, one of the best backfields ever (at Oregon).”

Then you have the sophomore receiver Addison, who had a great spring, Helfrich says. Addison has been compared to Thomas in his versatility, but Thomas says the kid brings much more to the team.

“He’s a coach on the field,” Thomas says. “He knows a lot. He makes plays. He’s going to be something.”

And, the guy delivering the ball?

“Marcus is going to be unbelievable this year,” Thomas says. “I’m excited to see him throwing some bombs and going on the run.”

Thomas has put on three or four pounds, and “I feel like I got stronger.” He never lifted weights during his prep days at Crenshaw High.

“It’s kind of fun. I like lifting,” he says. “I always wanted to learn how to lift.”

He also wants to be a vocal leader, since Helfrich has said that leadership will be key for the Ducks. It’s one reason Helfrich ceded the play-calling to offensive coordinator Scott Frost; that will help him concentrate on running things on the sideline.

Thomas says the Ducks could be the best team in Oregon history. Could the 2013 season be his last, before jumping to the NFL? A family human services major from inner-city L.A., he has grown to love the Willamette Valley and Oregon lifestyle — camping, fishing about 20 times and Jet-Skiing filled his summer. But job possibilities at the next (pro) level are something he will have to consider after this season.

“I just try to live in the moment and handle business one step at a time,” he says. “I’ll wait until January, then sit down with my family and make that decision.”

Huff, from Houston, says he considered transferring after his sophomore year (Thomas’ freshman year), when he was disenchanted with his spot on the team.

But now, “I love it here ... (love) my teammates,” Huff says. “If I would have transferred, I would have left my lifelong friends, felt like I was turning my back on them. That would have been selfish. Just being around these guys, it’s a privilege for me. I had to understand that.”

Then came 2012, when Huff was arrested for a marijuana DUI. He played through the season while gearing up to battle the charges in court. He was acquitted in January. It was a learning experience, he says.

“My dad always told me not to run from my problems,” says Huff, who’ll walk in the UO graduation ceremony Aug. 17 with a sociology degree. “I got my own lawyer, went through the process on my own, and that helped me mature as a man. I decided to take it head on. I challenged the court, the DA, and I had a great lawyer.”

Huff almost jumped to the NFL after his junior year. But he wanted to complete his collegiate journey.

“I really hadn’t played a full season since my freshman year” because of injuries, he says. “I don’t believe I was ready. My body wasn’t ready for the next level. I get to be around the best strength and conditioning coach in the country (Jim Radcliffe) and trainers to help me get my body ready for the next season.”

The 5-11, 205-pound Huff says he also needed to work on his game, mostly at running full speed on routes rather than “second-guessing myself.” As a senior who has 82 receptions for 1,226 yards and 12 TDs (along with 212 yards and two TDs rushing in 2010), Huff expects to be a big part of the UO offense, and a leader.

“Being on a great team, and being around great coaches and teammates, you have the opportunity to become great yourself,” Huff says. “Once you become great, it’s an amazing feeling.”