College sports are littered with former prodigies who peaked young. But Thomas is now 19, a sophomore with short braids and a baby face, doing for the Ducks what he did for the Bears. Last year he scored a touchdown once every 7.8 times he touched the ball, and this season once every 4.4. "What you saw in Reggie Bush at USC," says Oregon starting tailback Kenjon Barner, "you see in De'Anthony Thomas."
Because he is 5'9", 176 pounds, the Ducks treat Thomas like a vintage sports car they just drive around the block on Saturdays. In the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin last season they gave him two carries, and he rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns. This season he is up to four carries per game, for 76 yards on average. LaMichael James, the 49ers' rookie running back and Oregon alumnus, texted one Ducks coach last week, "You've got to get him the ball!" Thomas is not technically in the starting lineup; he's a second-string tailback and wide receiver who is also a kick returner, punt returner and gunner on special teams. He's the lone reserve in the running for the Heisman Trophy. "You watch the NFL, you watch college, there's no one like him," says Oregon left tackle Kyle Long, son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. "He's the next generation of position. He's not a running back or a receiver. He's a bullet."
People have a tendency to make crackling sound effects and invoke obscure cartoons when they describe Thomas. He is a blur of green or yellow, black or silver, whatever palette the Ducks have chosen that day. He clocks a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, but as former Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry says, "That joker doesn't really get going until after 40." In a game against Washington State last season Thomas caught a swing pass in the left flank at midfield, split two defenders and sailed down the sideline. A Cougars' safety cut him off at the 25-yard line, but Thomas dodged right, then left, then right, then left. Four times he spun that poor safety in a circle, leaving him dizzy by the time they crossed the goal line. "We laugh in the film room," Long says. "All the folklore, all the fairy tales, they're all true."
Thomas grew up the oldest of five sons of a single mother, Gaylian Dupree, a former track star at Los Angeles High. When De'Anthony played for the Bears, he used to dash to the right sideline, pause for a beat, charge all the way back to the left sideline, race down the field and do a front flip into the end zone, landing on his cleats. At 14 he was asked for his first autograph, and at 15 he received his first recruiting letter, from Oregon. "I thought he was too small," says Ducks running backs coach Gary Campbell. "Then I turned on the film and realized he probably wouldn't get hurt because nobody could touch him."
At Crenshaw High, De'Anthony liked to juke and jitterbug, the way he did in the Snoop Youth Football League. Head coach Robert Garrett convinced him that one hard cut, from the hash mark to the sideline, is more effective than all those stutter steps. "We didn't even lift weights at Crenshaw," says USC linebacker Hayes Pullard. "We just ran. We had to chase De'Anthony."
Thomas led Crenshaw to two city championships. As a senior he was named the No. 1 athlete in the nation by Rivals.com, and he turned in the best 200-meter time in the country (20.61). Kids mobbed him for pictures after games, and Garrett had to limit his interviews. "He was a household name in L.A.," says Barner, a Southern California native, "and he was still in high school."
Kobe Bryant has become known as the Black Mamba, the name of a vicious African snake, but Snoop insists that Thomas was called that first. Snoop's sons, Cordell and Corde Broadus, befriended De'Anthony and invited him to the house for dinners, sleepovers and trips to Magic Mountain. "He became like another brother," says Cordell, a sophomore receiver at Diamond Bar High with a scholarship offer from UCLA.
When USC hired Lane Kiffin as head coach in January 2010, recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron called Thomas "priority one" and secured a commitment in May. The Ducks say they backed off. "He was the highest-profile kid I've ever seen come out of the city," says Campbell. "It was like everyone made up their minds he was staying." Crenshaw is less than five miles from USC, and the schools have long been linked. Garrett was a consultant on the 1991 movie Boyz n the Hood, in which Crenshaw star Ricky Baker is headed to USC before he is shot and killed.
Gangs are still common in the area, but Thomas was insulated from them so thoroughly that he might as well have been in a gated community. "The Bloods, the Crips, everybody loved him," says Coach K Mac, now the defensive coordinator for Snoop's Steelers. "He could go anywhere with no problem. He represented South L.A."
When you ask Garrett for a Thomas highlight reel, he responds, "There are about 20,000. Everybody here has one." Thomas won't watch them, though, recoiling at images of his breakneck runs. On the day after games he would grab his fishing pole and bike to Hahn Park, where he tossed casts into a pond stocked with catfish.