Malee: With Tra Carson's departure, Oregon's running back situation a question mark

LaMichael James’ departure from Oregon to the NFL, though disappointing to many fans, was no shocker. James had hinted for months that he was leaning toward entering the NFL Draft, and after such a storied career that capped off with a Rose Bowl victory, who could blame him?

What very few, if any, saw coming was the transfer of freshman Tra Carson.

With James headed out the door, and Kenjon Barner finally slated as a full-time starter, the backup spot looked to be Carson’s to lose. He was already coming off of an impressive freshman season that saw him rank fourth on the team in rushing (254 yards), and his steady 5.6 yards per carry average showed he could be counted on as a bruising, between-the-tackles runner. After garnering more playing time than Lache Seastrunk and Dontae Williams ever did before they transferred, Carson was expected to stay for the long haul. What would motivate him to do otherwise?

Well, it’s not yet clear why Carson made the decision to leave Eugene — after he openly wondered about what color uniform he would be wearing next year, Carson’s Twitter feed quickly turned into a stream of NBA-related posts. What is readily apparent, though, is that Oregon — once awash in capable running backs — now finds itself perilously short on proven backups to spell Barner.

Remove the 227-pound Carson from the 2012 roster, and not one of Oregon’s five remaining backs tops 200 pounds. Three of them — Antwan Baker, Ayele Forde and De’Anthony Thomas — don’t even break 180, and Barner, though certainly bulkier now than he was three years ago, certainly isn’t known as a tackle-breaking physical force a la LeGarrette Blount or Jonathan Stewart.

Now, obviously, playing weight is but one of many attributes of a running back — and not even a very important one at that. James never broke the 200-pound mark, but his speed and physical style more than made up for it. De’Anthony Thomas, who barely weighs more than I do, set the Pac-12 on fire in 2011. College football, unlike the NFL, doesn’t disqualify anyone based on size alone.

Still, tough and versatile running backs like James don’t come around very often, and it remains to be seen whether Barner can replicate James’ workload without breaking down. Carson’s presence would have been welcome in 2012, both as a change-of-pace/third-down back and as a potential fill-in for Barner if he were forced to miss time. Now, all of a sudden, the Ducks might be forced to slot incoming freshman Byron Marshall behind Barner on the depth chart. Thomas is a running back in name only at this point, and the rest of the crew is both smaller and less skilled than Marshall (who, according to ESPN’s scouting report, “has good bulk on a compact, sturdy frame and the great speed and acceleration to take it the distance on any carry”).

If ESPN’s fawning report is anywhere near correct, then perhaps the Ducks will be just fine without Carson. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Marshall is good enough to play right away, and Chip Kelly himself called the San Jose, Calif., native, “one of the fastest kids in the country” and “our top running back prospect all along.” Maybe, as has been the case so often over the past few years, everything will simply fall into place.

Maybe. But heading into the first season that comes anywhere close to a “rebuilding” stage after the departures of James and veteran quarterback Darron Thomas, “maybe” probably isn’t what Kelly wanted to hear, even at a position as seemingly inconsequential as backup running back.

Look at what happened just this past season. How would Oregon have fared when James went down with an elbow injury had it not been for Barner and Carson? James himself saw his star born when Blount was suspended back in 2009.

College football is nothing if not unpredictable, and it can’t please Kelly to see Carson leave such a gaping hole in Oregon’s running back corps.

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Patrick Malee

Patrick Malee