EUGENE — De’Anthony Thomas played less than a half in No. 4 Oregon’s season opener and still managed to show that he’s the flash in the Ducks’ prolific offense.
Handling the ball just eight times, Thomas managed 125 total offensive yards and three touchdowns in Oregon’s 57-34 victory over Arkansas State. He retired to the bench midway through the second quarter.
Former Ducks running back and Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James assessed Thomas from the sidelines, and then went to Twitter with his reaction.
“Best college football athlete I have ever in my life seen! ... I’m a witness," James posted.
Thomas had three carries for 64 yards and a touchdown. He caught four passes from redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota for 55 yards and two scores. And he returned a punt six yards.
“Whenever 6 touches the ball you just kind of sit back," said coach Chip Kelly, referring to Thomas by his jersey number. “He’s a special player."
Thomas, a 5-foot-9, 173-pound Los Angeles native, was already getting Heisman Trophy buzz before the opener. Last season, he set an Oregon freshman record with 18 touchdowns, rushing for seven, catching nine and adding two on kickoff returns.
He finished with 2,235 all-purpose yards, an average of 159.6 yards per game, and was named the Pac-12’s co-freshman of the year on offense. He was the only player in the nation with more than 400 yards each in rushing, receiving and returns.
In last season’s Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, Thomas carried the ball just twice, once for 91 yards and a touchdown and then 64 yards for another score. He finished the game with 314 all-purpose yards.
After the game, Kelly joked: “I’ll see if next year we can get him an extra carry or two."
To date, Thomas has 21 touchdowns in 15 career games. He’s averaging a score every 5.7 touches.
“I just feel a lot more confident on the field now," Thomas said.
Thomas first grabbed attention when he played for Snoop Dogg’s youth football league in Los Angeles. The rapper, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, nicknamed the young Thomas the “Black Mamba" because of his ability to change direction and slip through defenses.
Thomas would graduate from Snoop’s league to play for Crenshaw High School. His senior season he rushed for 1,299 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also picking off five passes on defense to lead the Cougars to their second straight city championship.
Thomas also ran track, and at the state championships his junior year he ran the 200 meters in a wind-aided 20.61 seconds, the best time in the nation for a prep athlete at the time. Thomas surprised many when he decided to go to Oregon over USC, but Kelly’s uptempo offense was perfect for the elusive sprinter.
“There is a reason they call him the Black Mamba: He just strikes. I am always at a loss for words," receiver Josh Huff said. “It is so exciting to see him with the ball and play for our offense."
Thomas is not oblivious to the attention he’s getting from teammates like Huff — and beyond Eugene. Thomas is already on numerous Heisman watch lists and the subject of several Facebook campaigns, including one appropriately entitled “De’Anthony for De’Heisman."
“I just use it as motivation to work even harder and try to be the best," he said.