EVERY DAY LAST SEASON DE'ANTHONY THOMAS SPENT TIME IN THE HEAD COACH'S OFFICE. He wasn't in trouble. When it came to Thomas, the biggest problem Chip Kelly had was figuring out how often and how best to use him. Take the Rose Bowl, for example. Oregon's 45--38 win over Wisconsin was keyed by Thomas's spectacular touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards. There wasn't a third rushing attempt. "I don't know if I've ever had a kid average 77 yards a carry," Kelly said afterward. "I'll see if next year we can get him an extra carry or two."
Because Thomas split time at running back and receiver, he didn't fit neatly into either position group, and Kelly didn't have anything to do during position meetings. So the coach and the precocious freshman got together every afternoon to discuss X's and O's and the game plan for the week. By the end of the season the 5' 9" 175-pounder known since childhood as Black Mamba (Snoop Dogg—yes, that Snoop Dogg—gave him the nickname after watching Thomas run wild against a youth football team the rapper was coaching) had produced 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns. "A hell of a year," says Kelly, and he's already planning ways to help Thomas top it.
With the early departure of LaMichael James to the NFL, Thomas will see more action at running back (though Kenjon Barner figures to be the starter), and he will also continue to play receiver. In Oregon's scheme he gets the ball in a variety of ways, often in open space, where his speed causes plenty of trouble for defenses. USC coach Lane Kiffin has compared him with a smaller version of Reggie Bush. "He's special," says Kiffin, who still isn't sure how Thomas, who was committed to USC until right before signing day, escaped Los Angeles.
Thomas was certainly a catch as a recruit. He capped a standout high school career at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles by helping the Cougars to a 12-win season, finishing with 1,299 yards rushing, 359 receiving and 22 total touchdowns to go along with the 42 tackles and five interceptions he made as a defensive back.
At Oregon, Thomas began making plays right away, racking up 122 all-purpose yards in last year's season opener against LSU. But he also had two critical fumbles on consecutive touches in the loss—providing an opening for a teachable moment in the meetings with the coach that followed. Week after week, Thomas's involvement in Kelly's game plans increased. "He's an amazing kid," says Kelly. "He's a very intuitive football player. How quickly he picked things up was kind of surprising."
Although Thomas was never the Ducks' first option, he quickly became a potent weapon, whether running (595 yards, seven touchdowns), receiving (46 catches, 605 yards, nine TDs) or returning kickoffs (27.3-yard average on 36 attempts, two TDs).
Thomas, not one to boast, isn't exactly the most loquacious interview subject. What does he expect from this season? "Me just playing my role," he says. His thoughts on getting the football more often? "Just to contribute, that's all I want to do." Running back or receiver in 2012? "I'll just do whatever for the team."
Kelly's goal is more specific. He wants to "take the leash off" Thomas, and the coach plans to continue meeting with his emerging star to figure out ways to make that happen. "He just presents so many challenges," Kelly says. "How many ways can we get him the ball?" It's clear the coach plans to find Thomas an extra carry or two.