Drukarev: Oregon’s depth shines with departures of Darron Thomas, LaMichael James

Darron Thomas’ stunning departure from the Oregon football program has been well-chronicled. On Saturday, the two-year starter announced his intention to declare for the upcoming NFL draft rather than return to Oregon for his fifth year of eligibility. Later that night, Thomas signed with prominent NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus, and poof! Thomas’ career ended nearly as quickly as it began, all the way back in 2008 when he nearly led Oregon to a comeback victory over Boise State. @@[email protected]@

In a far less surprising development, star running back LaMichael James joined Thomas in declaring for the NFL draft earlier this month. Although James, too, had an additional year of eligibility at Oregon, nearly everyone expected he would turn pro after another outstanding year here in Eugene.

Many words could be written about the pro prospects of two of the finest players in program history. But I’m not here to write about the duo’s NFL future – I wish them the best, certainly, but as Oregon football moves to a new era, it’s more pertinent to focus on the reaction and fallout from Thomas’ departure and what that indicates about the future of the Duck program.

Reaction to Thomas’ and James’ draft decisions — particularly Thomas’ — has varied widely. Some Oregon fans feel Thomas is making the right decision — he’s leaving at the pinnacle of his Duck career and has nothing else to prove — while others think another year could help his pro stock. In nearly all cases, there’s been remarkably little anxiety over the future of the program, something you’d expect following the departure of perhaps the two most important players on back-to-back-to-back BCS bowl teams.

I understand that part of the reason for the lack of concern about Oregon’s future is the varying assessment of Thomas. Despite consistently notching wins, Thomas never seemed to win over Oregon fans in the same manner predecessors Joey Harrington and Dennis Dixon did. Even this season, cries for Bryan Bennett never truly ceased.

But I happen to believe the Bennett boosters were the vocal minority. While acknowledging that Thomas was by no means a perfect quarterback, I think most Duck fans appreciated all that he brought to the program, both on and off the field.

Even with James, there’s been no real concern that his departure will cripple Oregon’s offense. As is the case with the quarterback position, Oregon fans are comforted by the depth still remaining — Kenjon Barner is a proven commodity, De’Anthony Thomas is a terror to defend, and Tra Carson and incoming freshman Byron Marshall are highly touted. Objectively, there’s little reason to think James’ departure will change the way and the efficiency at which Oregon’s offense operates. @@[email protected]@

But imagine, for a second, what would happen to the majority of college football programs if they lost the leading rusher in program history and a quarterback who went 23-3 in his starts. In 99 percent of cases, the team wouldn’t begin the following season ranked in the top-5 by many publications.

With each passing year of the Chip Kelly regime, Oregon depends on individual performance less and less and relies on a foundation of success built from the ground up even more. It’s a formula that begins with a coaching staff that’s as stable as any in the nation — the surprising defection of top recruiter Tosh Lupoi from Cal to Washington and the ensuing recruiting turmoil is just one indication of how important continuity is — and continues with a defense that rotates through the two-deep liberally, an offensive line low on NFL draft picks and star power but high on efficiency and speed, speed and more speed. @@[email protected]@

The early exits of James and Thomas will hurt Oregon this year, to be certain. But years of coaching continuity and significant depth at nearly every position ensure Oregon will be a contender in the Pac-12 North now and for the foreseeable future. Nowadays, Oregon’s program truly is more than a one-man show.

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