EUGENE — Kenjon Barner admits that he is no LaMichael James.
And he doesn't want to be.
Barner takes over this season as the top running back for the Oregon Ducks now that James has moved on to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. He said he is ready to establish his own legacy with the Ducks — separate from the one-two punch he formed with James the past two football seasons.
“The only thing that's similar between me and LaMichael is the fact that we're friends. We're two completely different guys, two completely different players,” Barner said. “So as far as comparisons go, LaMichael is great at doing LaMichael, and I'm great at doing Kenjon.”
Often over the past two seasons, Ducks coach Chip Kelly referred to Barner as option “1A” behind James, suggesting that the two were nearly interchangeable. Indeed, the team did not appear to lose a step last season when James missed two games with a dislocated right elbow. The Oregon Ducks went 12-2, capped by a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Barner was the Ducks' second-leading rusher — behind James — for the past two seasons. He ran for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and he caught 17 passes for 184 yards and three scores.
In three seasons at Oregon, the 5-foot-11, 192-pound back has rushed for 1,856 yards. He has 27 touchdowns. Barner needs 1,441 yards this season to take over for Derek Loville (3,296) as the program's second all-time leading rusher behind James.
James, a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore, announced in early January that he was going to skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft. He was taken in the second round by San Francisco. James finished his career with 5,082 rushing yards. He was the first Pac-12 player to record three straight 1,500-yard seasons.
Despite the absence of James, and the departure of quarterback Darron Thomas, the Ducks are ranked No. 5 in the preseason AP poll. Oregon opens at home Sept. 1 against Arkansas State.
The Ducks have not yet named a starting quarterback to replace Thomas, whose record was 23-3 in leading the Ducks before leaving early for the NFL draft.
Bryan Bennett, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, was Thomas' backup last season, passing for 369 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. Marcus Mariota, a 6-4 redshirt freshman, played well in the spring game, setting up a position battle that has gone on behind closed doors during preseason camp. Kelly said this week that he will release a new two-deep depth chart today.
Barner jokes that he indeed has a preference at quarterback: Hall of Famer Steve Young. “I'd be glad to welcome him to Oregon,” he laughed.
Kidding aside, Barner said: “Whoever starts at the position will do a great job. They're two very capable guys of leading this offense — not only this offense, but leading this team — to where we want to go.”
Also undefined for the Ducks is the role of dynamic playmaker De'Anthony Thomas — but that is by design.
Thomas is both fast and versatile, going from running back to wide receiver to kick returner. He did not attend regular position meetings last season and instead game-planned individually with Kelly. In the end, he set an Oregon freshman record with 18 touchdowns: seven rushing, nine receiving and two on kickoff returns.
Thomas is the most likely one-two combo with Barner.
“Usually we have two guys and we split the carries between those two, so depending on the depth behind those two guys will determine how we will use them, but you will see them both on the field at the same time,” Kelly said. “I think what that presents to a defense — with some of the other weapons we have from a skilled position standpoint — is something that's going to make defensive coordinators stay up late at night.”
“I kind of see it developing the same way as the coaches developed me and LaMichael,” he said. “When me and LaMichael were on the field at the same time it was dangerous for defenses to defend, because you not only have to worry about one guy, you have to worry about another who is also a major playmaker. You have that in De'Anthony.”
Two seasons ago, when Oregon went undefeated during the regular season and played in the national championship game against Auburn, Barner missed two games because of a scary concussion.
Flattened on a kickoff return by Washington State's Anthony Carpenter, he was hospitalized. Afterward, James showed him the clip of the hit on YouTube, but Barner remembered none of it.
Barner, who says he still does not remember anything but running onto the field that day, believes the hit made him a better player because he was forced to overcome the fear of being injured again.
“You can't afford to be nervous. You can't afford to be timid. You can't afford to think about anything else other than making the play because if you're timid, that's how you get hurt,” he said.
There was plenty of speculation earlier this year that Barner might leave Oregon with pal James for the NFL. But he decided to stay and earn his degree in criminology, which he did this past spring. After football, he envisions a job with the FBI.
Barner also stayed because he has something to prove.
“I'm definitely ready,” he said. “I've been preparing for this for quite some time now. I feel physically ready as well as mentally ready.”