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Senior College Football Columnist

Blazing Thomas is Oregon's strategic weapon

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In 18 games as a Duck, Thomas is averaging a TD every 7.65 times he touches the ball. (US Presswire)  
In 18 games as a Duck, Thomas is averaging a TD every 7.65 times he touches the ball. (US Presswire)  

SEATTLE -- Childlike.

That's the first term that comes to mind in describing Oregon's 5-foot-9, 175-pound imp. De'Anthony Thomas is half arm bands, half lightning, all wonder. Sitting in a hallway folding chair following Saturday's win over Washington State, the Ducks' 19-year old sophomore smiled seemingly in awe of the moment. For an instant. His widening eyes and body language conveyed his next thought: "Uh-oh, here they come."

The media. His first few answers were insightful.

"It was shocking" Thomas said of Washington State, the first team that dared to kick off to him this season.

Then the responses began to lack length and detail. Everything else was "fun" and "great." Either someone has a) programmed perhaps the country's most dangerous multi-purpose X factor, or b) DAT -- as he has come to be known -- is the typical 19-year-old. He really hasn't figured out his world of wonder.

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"I feel like I'm going to bust one, one of these times," Thomas said.

The answer, refreshingly, is B). Going to bust one? Thomas apparently doesn't know he is tied for fourth nationally with eight touchdowns. Among "true" all-purpose runners -- those with yards in all four categories: rushing, receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns -- he is fifth among players from BCS conferences.

Bust one? After Saturday, he is averaging a touchdown every 7.65 times he touches the ball in his 18-game career.

The world has begun to close in on this care-free talent, along with a few defenses. This city has become somewhat of a think tank for stopping Thomas in recent days. Washington State did a serviceable job against him Saturday, limiting Thomas to 126 yards on 18 touches. Now it's Washington's turn. Coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will spend the week in a bunker coming up with a plan before traveling to Eugene this weekend.

Sarkisian can squint and see similarities to Reggie Bush.

"Very similar when you look at the phases where he can impact a game," said Sark, Southern California's former offensive coordinator. "The ability to really change the game in one touch is what is eerily similar to the two guys."

Before Geno Smith hijacked Heisman talk, Thomas was an acquired, discriminating taste in the national discussion. Technically, he doesn't start at any position, but he can score from anywhere.

"It's like he doesn't really realize how good he really is," teammate Kenjon Barner said.

The journey for that definition travels to some strange places. Thomas can count Snoop Dogg as a mentor. Fo' shizzle.

"This kid found me," Snoop told the Pac-12 Networks, recounting how Thomas exploded in the rapper's youth football league seven years ago.

DAT already has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Oregon's track coach Robert Johnson says Thomas' skills as a sprinter would make him a borderline Olympian if he was devoted to track full time. As it is, Johnson graciously gets him before and after spring practice.

There has been charming cult of DAT spring up around the innocence of the product of South Central Los Angeles. Following Saturday's 51-26 win, it was the youngest fans behind the Oregon bench who pleaded the hardest for his attention. A child wearing Thomas' No. 6 jersey held up a homemade sign: "De'Anthony Score A TD 4 My BDay."

Whether his intentions were other than the end zone that night, DAT did.

"For a little dude from Southern California making a name like that, that quick, it's incredible," said one of those fans, Scipio Mundine from Fresno, Calif.

Moments earlier, Thomas had sprinted over to the stands to shake the hand of Mundine, the older brother of one of his old youth football teammates.

Childlike.

"More than just as a football player, this kid with this much talent is this humble," Barner said. "There's no cockiness. He's a kid and that makes me better as a man."

Barner loves to tell the story of how he was a host on Thomas' recruiting visit. After the official stuff, most players want to go to a party, hang out, blow off some steam. Thomas wanted to stay in, play video games.

"When I met him he just blew me away," Barner said. "On his visit I said, 'Hey, you want to go out?' He said, 'Nah, let's just chill together.' He just wanted to be around the team, play Madden and NCAA. I've hosted guys they just want to go out, go to parties, meet girls. He's a house body."

A house body with 20.61 speed in the 200 as a high schooler, fastest in the country.

"You could easily see him being a low 10-second guy in the 100 -- 10.20, 10.10," said Johnson when asked about a DAT as a full-time track athlete. "Same thing there in the 200 and he could be a low 20-second guy. "That's one of the things whenever I've been asked to speak about him, the thing that makes me marvel. He's definitely grounded."

Maybe that affected his decision to play at Oregon. USC had a commitment, a solid commitment. Lane Kiffin had worked his usual recruiting magic, getting the No. 1-rated "athlete" in the country. At the last minute, though, Thomas changed his mind. It has been suggested that the quieter, calmer Eugene scene had the opposite effect on this big-time recruit. Instead of craving the attention, he went to a place where he could turn down the volume.

"I think he's a guy, if you didn't give him any credit, he wouldn't care at all," said running backs coach Gary Campbell. Campbell has been at Oregon 30 years, during the lean years and the glory. He has seen or directly coached every great skill player that has come through the program during that time.

"He can actually get to holes better than LaMichael [James] could," Campbell said referring Oregon's former national rushing leader and Heisman finalist.

"We work him everywhere. We have an arsenal of plays we take into the game."

Like any strategic weapon, how that arsenal is used depends on distance, accuracy and situation. This weapon has averaged a touchdown every eight times he touches the ball this season.

"He's the Black Mamba, you know?" said offensive tackle Kyle Long. "He's going to attack you down the field. He's going to cut you up."

Snoop gave Thomas the nickname as a youth when it became obvious the rapper had "never seen nobody move in grass that fast other than a black snake." Long and Thomas became close a couple of years ago at the Army All-America game. Thomas played cornerback that day instead of flashing his multi-purpose ability.

"He locked everyone down too," Long said. "It was insane."

Despite the elusiveness, defenses will come after him. They already have come after him. It's a strategic battle now between Chip Kelly, his staff and the opposition. Kiffin kicked to him three times last year in Eugene, the last time with the Trojans holding a 38-14 lead. Ninety-six yards later Thomas scored. USC held on to win 38-35.

"When they kicked the ball off to him, I said, 'Don't do it, please don't do it, Kiffin, please!' " Snoop added. "And he went ahead and did it. When you do that, the Black Mamba gonna bite you. That's what the Black Mamba do."

Back in the chair, Thomas senses the questions are almost done. There is nothing Mamba about him. The DAT, who is half arm bands, half lightning, looks around one more time in wonder.

"It's a great feeling just to be out there playing for the Ducks, having fun," Thomas said, almost childlike.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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