Less than two years ago, it seemed De’Anthony Thomas would be the next great running back to play for “Tailback U,” as USC is often called.
Thomas, who was deemed “The Black Mamba” by Snoop Dogg, went to nearby Crenshaw High School, and had committed to USC near the end of his junior year.
“Obviously, we loved him,” said USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron, who helped recruit Thomas to Troy. “We thought he was a great young man, a very explosive player.”
Even though there was some speculation that USC coach Lane Kiffin wanted to utilize Thomas as a cornerback, people figured that Kiffin would find a way to get the ball to a player that ended up leading Crenshaw to two Los Angeles City Section championships, primarily as a running back.
Thomas was poised to follow in the footsteps of great Trojan running backs like O.J. Simpson and Reggie Bush — without the contentious headlines those footsteps eventually led to.
But then, Thomas stirred up a controversy by simply changing his mind: On Feb. 2, 2011, Thomas rescinded his commitment to USC and signed with Oregon.
“It was such a shock,” Kiffin said at Pac-12 Media Day in 2011. “Here was a kid that had been ’SC for so long. … This wasn’t one of those guys we ever thought was wavering at all. It was probably our strangest story in recruiting.”
It turned out Thomas loved the Ducks.
In choosing Oregon, he chose a school that doesn’t quite have the storied history behind its football program that USC boasts, but has stolen the spotlight since Chip Kelly was hired as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator in 2007.
Since Kelly implemented his high-octane spread attack, the Ducks have churned out an impressive list of backs themselves: Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount and LaMichael James all helped transform Oregon into a perennial powerhouse.
“They’ve done a tremendous job with their program,” Orgeron said. “They do a great job of marketing with those uniforms, and all the other things that they do to sell Oregon the right way.”
Thomas had taken an official visit to Eugene, Ore., days before recommitting right before the deadline for high school seniors to make their final decision.
“[Thomas] contacted us during the last week of recruitment, and came in during that last weekend for a visit,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “We showed him what our school is about, what we have to offer … he made the decision based on what he thought was best for him, more than anything else.”
It’s hard to argue with that reasoning, especially after seeing the results of the Black Mamba’s historic season last year.
Thomas set Oregon’s freshman record with 18 all-purpose touchdowns — seven rushing, nine receiving, and two kickoff returns.
He was named a Freshman All-American and All-Pac-12 first team kick returner and was the only player in the nation with 400 or more yards from rushing, receiving and kick returning.
“He’s everything we thought he’d be and more,” Orgeron said. “[But] you can’t just focus on stopping him; there’s a lot of elements to that offense.”
By some standards, Thomas’ role as a tailback has been reduced a bit this year; his 499 rushing yards and seven touchdowns are second on the team behind Kenjon Barner’s 974 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But he ranks first on the team in receptions (24), and returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown last week against Colorado, zigzagging across the width of the field and making defenders look silly.
USC sophomore Hayes Pullard, who attended Crenshaw High alongside Thomas, knows exactly how dangerous he can be.
“He’ll be outside at receiver, [inside] at running back,” Pullard said. “We just got to know where he is and think about the plays he can execute from where he is.”
Pullard says he communicates with his ex-teammate daily, and that Thomas and his new Oregon teammates have stepped up their trash talk since USC’s loss to Arizona last Saturday.
“They still throw it in our face about how we don’t have no [championship] hopes and stuff like that,” Pullard said. “But it’s all just playing around, that’s how we’ve been playing since Crenshaw. … We’re still going to be best friends until the end.”
USC fans hope that Pullard will put that friendship aside this Saturday — or else the Black Mamba could put more tooth marks on the Trojans’ season.