In college football there are great players, and there is the type of athlete that comes around once every few years. What exactly is the difference between a great college football player and being the most electrifying and exciting player in the country?
What if the most dynamic, explosive and dangerous weapon in all of college football didn't have a position to call his own? That may be what makes Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas the nation's most exciting player.
There are many elite athletes that deserve consideration, but to be regarded as the most exciting in the country, a player needs to be the most feared player on a team full of playmakers. The type of player that causes opposing coaches headaches because they never know when, where or how he will break the game open with a big play. All they know is that it's coming.
A lot of players are feared by the opposition and a lot of players might be more valuable to their teams' overall success, but guys like De'Anthony Thomas don't come around very often. In his limited touches, Thomas still manages to change the game in one way or another.
Opponents will kick it out of bounds to avoid him, they squib it to make it harder on him and sometimes they fake it just to save themselves from the embarrassment of trying to corral him. Sometimes they do everything right, have him cornered and catch him making a fundamental error that would have most players getting benched on the next play.
With Thomas, Oregon's coaches have to put on their best "that is not how we taught you...don't ever do that again" face on so that the rest of the Ducks' players know they are never to try and do what Thomas did. This punt return against Colorado in 2012 had trouble written all over it. Then De'Anthony Thomas happened.
An argument can certainly be made for explosive dual-threat quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Devin Gardner and Taylor Martinez, to name a few. Quarterbacks have the ball on every play, and a handful of them are extremely terrifying for the opposing defense based on their dual-threat abilities. Johnny Manziel is a magician. Dislike him and question his abilities all you want, but the kid steps onto the field and he's magic. He touches the ball 60-80 times a game, giving him dozens of chances to make things happen and pile up the stats.
As much as the Oregon Ducks want to call Thomas a running back, he never has been and never will be a true feature back. Even at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, Thomas was never the leading rusher on his own team.
That's not to say he's not capable of carrying the load out of the backfield because he has proven it with 338 yards (8.6/YPC) and six touchdowns on just 42 carries as the Ducks' starting running back in 2013. Is he a true receiver at just 5'9", 170 pounds? Probably not. That didn't stop him from leading the Ducks in catches as both a freshman and sophomore.
Thomas has averaged just 11.83 touches/game in his career. Quarterbacks can make mistakes and bounce back. Thomas often has to rely on the other team to score for him to even have a chance to return a kick. Opponents give him a chance, accidentally or not, to return a kick about 20 percent of the time when he is back deep for the Ducks. When he does get it, that's when things get turned up a notch.
Limited touches make it hard for a player to stand out. Thomas makes the hard look easy and the easy look supernatural. Thomas is the type of player that no matter what the situation is, will always find a way to do something that takes your breath away.
His stats tell much of the tale, but there are so many things that he brings to the table that the average fan won't see. Thomas has been the victim of a handful of penalties that took a huge special teams play off the board. He has been tripped up by a shoestring on a couple of occasions by the last defender. There have been scoring plays called back and other unlucky situations that have kept his statistics from going through the roof.
The high-octane offense that Oregon employs allows Thomas to shine but also inhibits his statistical dominance due to the fact that the offense spreads the ball around to any one of the Ducks' other playmakers. The Ducks stable of big-play threats all benefit from hyper-focused defensive coordinators trying to limit Thomas. As a freshman, the Ducks had a backfield made up of a record-breaking quarterback in Darron Thomas, the reigning Doak Walker Award winner in LaMichael James and a future Heisman candidate in Kenjon Barner. Ask any coach that faced the Ducks in 2011 and Thomas was the one that struck the most fear in them.
Explosive playmakers that can do it at the highest level when the lights are the brightest carry more weight than a guy running wild against Bowling Green on a Tuesday night in October. Archer is the closest comparison to Thomas in terms of versatility, elusiveness, size and speed. With all due respect to the MAC, Archer is a great player that does it all, but he has played four ranked teams in his career with a high of 137 total yards in those games.
Thomas has played one college game in which his team was ranked outside of the Top 10 and has saved his best for the biggest stages. Thomas announced himself to the world as a freshman with a legendary Rose Bowl performance during which he ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns on just two carries (77.5/YPC), including a Rose Bowl record 91-yard dash that showed his world-class speed.
There is a long list of elite playmakers in the world of college football headlined by the likes of Marqise Lee (USC), Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Dri Archer (Kent St.), Lache Seastrunk (Baylor), Stefon Diggs (Maryland), Kadeem Carey (Arizona) and Isaiah Burse (Fresno St.), among others. A couple of them might be able to match his speed, but none of them have the versatility and limited opportunities that Thomas does.
When breaking it down, one player stands alone as the most versatile and exciting player in the country. Call him too little, call him a tweener or call him a system player. Whatever you choose to call De'Anthony Thomas, do it quickly or you'll likely miss him.