Picking up the slack
Running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner are best friends. They live together, they eat together and now they are together getting significant time in the backfield for the Ducks and they love it.
The two come from very different areas, with Barner hailing from Riverside, Calif. and James from Texarkana, Texas. Despite the different environments, the two have a lot in common. Both rushed for more than 2,000 yards as high school seniors. Both are under six foot (James is 5-9 and Barner is 5-11) and both are listed at 180 pounds.
“He’s like my brother,” James said of Barner. “We’re best friends and roommates and we do everything together. Kenjon and me have gone through a lot together so it helps to have another guy that’s going through it too. He’s there for me outside of football and inside it.”
Barner says just having a friend who knows his situation is something he doesn’t take
“It helps a lot,” he said. “LaMichael knows exactly what I’m going through and vice versa. So whenever one of us has a problem or has a question we know we can go to each other and we’re there for each other.”
No one thought LeGarrette Blount getting suspended for the season could ever be a good situation, but James and Barner are trying to make it one. Blount and the two redshirt freshmen are close, and on Sept. 12 before Oregon played Purdue, Blount briefly spoke to the running backs to give them some words of encouragement.
“He told us to run hard and play for him,” James said. “But we want to play for him regardless because he’s like a brother to us.”
In the 38-36 win, James finished with 56 yards on the ground on nine carries. Barner finished with 34 yards and a touchdown. Not great numbers. Head coach Chip Kelly thinks the two were inconsistent to start, but both showed flashes of brilliance with long runs for more than 20 yards.
“They progressed as the game went along,” Kelly said. “They were wide-eyed in the first half. We kept telling them to run like they did in practice … They’re both special players when they have the ball in their hands. They can make people miss and are quick. I hope that the Purdue game is the worst game they play in their career.”
The nerves were evident on both players’ first runs as James and Barner were caught looking into the stands of Autzen.
“I was very wide-eyed for the first two quarters,” James said. “It was my first time playing in front of 60,000 people. It took awhile to get my feet under me.”
“I was just nervous and had a lot of butterflies,” Barner said. “We really didn’t know what to expect. But we were able to calm down. It was crazy. Lots of excitement.”
Running backs coach Gary Campbell says it’s good that the two finally have a couple of games under their belts and can now get down to improving their play.
“They’re very young and it’s going to take some time to get acclimated to the offense and get acclimated to playing,” Campbell said. “It’s a little bit different when you’re in practice then when the lights come on and it’s time to perform and do your very best. They’re getting used to that and every week they’ll improve and I look for a big improvement this week.”
But one thing he still wants to see from Barner and James is their commitment to run up field. There were times when both backs tried to stretch a run to the sidelines instead of
“I want them to get up the field,” Campbell said. “More yardage is gained by running vertical instead of running towards the sidelines. Players coming out of high school are accustomed to being the fastest on the field, and getting to the sideline and outrunning everyone. Well, at this level they are not always the fastest and even if they are, there are guys with enough speed to make up the distance by getting better angles on them. I think they’re learning that little by little.”
Barner agrees and says he knows there’s still work to do.
“I think it’s going well. I’m progressing about on time,” he said. ” But I could speed the curve up a bit more. I need to work on blocks, running, reading my blocks and everything else.”
However, the progress is evident. The small players lowered their heads at certain times and took a few hits.
“I took a couple of shots,” James said. “But it just made me realize that I could do this, no matter how big they are. It’s football. They put the pads on just like me … It was the hits that calmed me down.”
Senior Andre Crenshaw is also in the backfield with them to give them pointers and advice.
“Having a veteran here helps your comfort because he knows what he’s doing,” Barner said. “So when you’re lost or don’t know what’s going on he’s there to help.”
The one knock on the running backs is that they’re all small and won’t be able to run between the tackles very well. But Campbell says it’s not about size and they’ll do just fine.
“They’re all going to all have to be that,” he said. “We don’t have that big, bruising guy. They’re just going to have to be tough runners. You don’t have to be big to be a tough runner. LaMichael and Kenjon can both be that.”
And as for who starts? It’s not important to either of them, James says.
“It doesn’t matter,” James said. “I don’t care who starts as long as we win.”
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