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Freshman phenom Thomas latest reminder of Pac-12 power shift


You had to feel for Tyree Toomer. Really, that's almost exactly what the TV announcer said as he watched the replay for the first time, seconds after De'Anthony Thomas' spectacular touchdown: "You have to feel for Toomer." The Washington State free safety had run across the field to help, and here he was, turning one way, then another, and then spinning in a circle, all in a vain attempt to stop the kid they call the Black Mamba. If there's consolation, it's that Toomer might have been one of the first victimized by Oregon's fabulous freshman, but he won't be the last.

Meet the newest -- and one day soon, maybe the best -- weapon in Chip Kelly's arsenal. Ten games into his career, Thomas is creating a portfolio of YouTube moments. Which is his favorite? "I don't even watch my own highlights," he said. Everyone else does, though, over and over. On a team filled with big-play threats, Thomas has created a stir. No, that's not quite right. LaMichael James calls Thomas "a blur." Lane Kiffin likens him to Reggie Bush, and even if it's coachspeak, it's a good comparison. At 5-9, 173 pounds, Thomas is smaller than the former USC star, but he's got similar game-breaking abilities, and he might be faster.

Thomas might also be more important -- and we're not talking about the 13 touchdowns and nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards he has already piled up. It's not so much what he might do Saturday, when Kiffin's Trojans visit Eugene, Ore. It's which team he'll do it for.

Before he ever scored a touchdown, Thomas was a huge get for Oregon -- and a huge loss for USC. He had been a legend in Los Angeles since his Pop Warner days, when his nickname was bestowed by the rapper Snoop Dogg after Thomas ran wild in a 52-0 beatdown of Snoop's team. At Crenshaw High School, he was ranked the nation's No. 1 "athlete" by a couple of recruiting services, and it only seemed natural that he would take his talents a couple of miles across town. Thomas verbally committed to USC as a junior, and was considered the jewel of Kiffin's second recruiting class. And then suddenly, he wasn't.

Kelly said the Ducks weren't recruiting Thomas, but a phone call by Thomas to Oregon last January turned into a hastily arranged, secret visit to Eugene at the last possible moment. On Signing Day, Thomas waited until the evening, and then showed up fashionably late for a news conference at Crenshaw wearing Oregon gear and making official his surprising reversal.

"It was never that I didn't want to go to USC," Thomas said then. "I just went to Oregon and loved it. It's a big stage up there. Coming into that offense ... it's a very good stage for me."

Kiffin still hasn't figured it out. "It still doesn't make sense," he told reporters this week. "It was very strange."

It was very symbolic, too. USC's run under Pete Carroll seemed long gone. The Trojans were dealing with NCAA sanctions. Oregon had won two straight conference titles. But it was still stunning when the Ducks snatched the best player in Los Angeles -- maybe the best in years -- from USC's back yard. Kiffin had made a priority of owning L.A. again, and was on his way to a superb class. In the past, the Trojans had occasionally lost a blue-chipper to a traditional program. But this was seen as something else, a sign of how the Pac-12's balance of power had shifted.

When Thomas called to tell Kiffin he'd changed his mind, the coach's response was: "Are you serious?" Thomas was, and to hear him tell it now, it was something he'd been considering for a while.

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Thomas had a good relationship with former USC assistant Todd McNair. "To be honest," Thomas said, "he was the reason I committed to USC." When McNair departed, a casualty of the NCAA investigation, Thomas never grew close to the new staff. Although he admits working to convince other recruits to join him at USC, he says he began to feel like the coaches took his commitment for granted. There was also talk that USC wanted Thomas to play cornerback -- he said it wasn't an issue -- and whispers that he needed to leave town to avoid trouble.

"Never," he said, laughing. "Never." And he insists it's as simple as this: "I just had a change of heart. Basically I felt comfortable here (in Eugene). ... I could be back at home playing with my friends, but I realized I need to play for myself. I just wanted to experience life."

Whatever the reason -- whether it was playing offense, or playing in Kelly's offense, or just feeling comfortable -- the teenager's reversal, and the dramatic timing, was assigned an importance beyond the recruiting rankings. Anyone who's watched his freshman season understands the fuss.

Thomas describes Eugene as "a chill city," and says it fits his laidback personality. He lives in a dormitory on campus, and doesn't have a car (he hasn't learned to drive yet). "I had a bike," he said, "until somebody stole it." To get to the football stadium and the Ducks' adjacent athletic complex, he either bums a ride or walks a couple of miles.

Since his arrival, he's been flying. Kelly said Thomas is instinctive, but also hard working and humble. It hasn't hurt that the head coach has taken to meeting daily with the freshman, teaching him his role and the offense's larger concepts. The results have often been spectacular.

Though Thomas' two fumbles against LSU were costly, helping the Tigers turn a tight game into a blowout, he rebounded to become a key part of the Ducks' attack. Playing running back and receiver, Thomas is averaging 9.4 yards every time he touches the football, and a touchdown every sixth touch. He has 366 yards and five rushing touchdowns on 46 carries, and 423 yards and seven scores on 27 catches, and he's returned a kickoff for another score.

"I just want to contribute," he said. "I feel like I'm doing it pretty well."

With James expected to leave after the season for the NFL, it's not difficult to project Thomas as Oregon's next Heisman candidate at running back. It's also easy to see why Kelly might keep him in the multipurpose role; the highlights keep piling up.

Last week at Stanford, Thomas turned a fourth-down screen pass into a nifty 41-yard dash for a touchdown, stunning the Cardinal's crowd. But there has been no better display of his speed, elusiveness and attitude than the 45-yard catch-and-run Oct. 29 against Washington State. Thomas took a swing pass in stride, turned the corner and, well, you'll need to click here to get the full effect. At the 25, Toomer arrived. He had no chance. At a click less than full-speed, Thomas jabbed right, turning Toomer one direction. He feinted left, turning Toomer the other way. Right-left again, an almost imperceptible shift in balance -- and he spun the safety around like a top and raced into the end zone.

"I don't even know who would think of doing that," Kelly said. "He made five or six cuts, but ... it was always the right cut. He's got a unique ability."

You have to feel for Toomer, and for the others who are destined for the wrong end of Thomas' YouTube moments. And if it happens Saturday, against guys who could have been his teammates, it will be another reminder of how the Pac-12's balance of power has shifted.