No time for politics: Ducks must choose between Marx and Machiavelli at running back

Karl Marx would have loved running back by committee. Newly installed in his first head coaching job at Socialist University, he would have installed Friedrich Engels as commissioner of running backs, set a quota for production and declared to the eager press, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Carries would be distributed by a seniority system. In the first year Socialist U. would average 3.3 per rush and go 5-6. The fans and bloggers howling for his dismissal, Marx would hold a hasty press conference and insist SU was evolving into a running back utopia, that he had a 5-year plan for success.

Niccolo Machiavelli, however, the long-time head man at rival Prince Town University, disdained committees. He would want a strong leader to emerge from his running backs, a star who would appear to be a team player and unselfish, while having the cunning and inner will to grasp greatness.

 

 

After a ruthless training camp one back would emerge as the fastest and strongest, average 7.6 yards a carry and compile 1850 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Princes would finish the season 12-1, demolish SU in The Civil War, and blitz to a 35-3 victory in the Philosophical Championship Series finale.

At which time Machiavelli would accept a lucrative contract (5 years guaranteed, 8 million a season) to become the new coach of the Washington Redskins. At his carefully orchestrated signing announcement he tearfully confesses, “It’s always been my dream to coach at the highest level, and the atmosphere in Washington intrigues me.”

The Ducks face a similar dilemma in 2013. With a new coach and uncertainty in the backfield, they have to choose between contrasting styles and philosophies at the running back position, and the decision is crucial. Where are the points and yards going to come from in what has been the most explosive, consistent offense in college football? Can Mark Helfrich continue the high octane, no-mercy, point a minute offensive output that Chip Kelly masterminded in Eugene?

Blur-fast, dayglo yellow uniforms would look ridiculous winning games 17-14. Or worse yet, losing them.

In the Chip Kelly era the Ducks were paced by high volume production from a star running back:

NAME CAR YDS AVG LONG TD
Kenjon Barner, 2012 278 1767 6.4 80 (TD) 21
LaMichael James, 2011 247 1805 7.3 90 (TD) 18
LMJ. 2010 294 1731 5.9 76 (TD) 21
LMJ, 2009 230 1546 6.7 60 (TD) 14
Jeremiah Johnson, 2008 168 1201 7.1 83 (TD) 13
Jonathan Stewart, 2007 280 1722 6.2 88 (TD)

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Marx would sniff and bristle at this chart. He would deplore the exploitation of the receivers and offensive line, expected to toil thanklessly while the star reaps NFL riches and All-American glory. Machiavelli would consider it thoughtfully for a long while and conclude, “A strong running game is power. It is the engine of success, bending a weaker opponent to your will.” A practical and incisive man, Niccolo would go about the task of choosing the most explosive and dominant of his running back candidates, and install him as the star in 2013.

Mark Helfrich, ever affable and low-key before the cameras, has to embark on a similar ruthless search over the next six months. He has to be the tough-minded tactician in this matter, deciding how to distribute the wealth among his talented, fleet-footed quarterback with the golden arm and quick feet, the steady but unspectacular Byron Marshall, his only returning scholarship running back, who had a long run of 32 yards as a true freshman, running primarily in the fourth quarter against tired and demoralized defenses, and an unproven but scintillating possibility, upstart, untested true freshman wunderkind Thomas Tyner, possessed of Olympic speed, fresh off 6A competition in Oregon’s Metro League, several steps below the 6-2, 250-lb. middle linebackers he’ll face running for the Ducks.

De’Anthony Thomas adds flash and suddenness to the attack, but at 5-9, 176, he’s too small for 25-30 touches a game, however tempting it is to keep giving him the ball. Thomas is best featured in the TAZR role, challenging defenses to first find him and then account for him. He can keep a middle linebacker like Kansas State’s Arthur Brown out of a play merely by going in motion.

The remaining candidate is another true freshman, Kani Benoit, built for power at 6-0, 200. Benoit rushed for 2260 yards at Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He shows promise in his highlight film but a tendency to bounce everything outside. He seems to lack Tyner’s top end speed but displays excellent balance. It’s likely he’ll have an adjustment period at the college level.

Nearly every freshman does. Even J-Stew started slowly, carrying the ball just 53 times as a true freshman, for a mere 188 yards, 3.5 a carry.  That was on a 2005 team that featured Kellen Clemens operating out of Mike Bellotti’s multiple formation, pro set offense; Terrence Whitehead led all rushers with 679 yards.

The expectation of many is that Tyner will come in and seize the job, based on his speed, size and potential. The Tyner camp readily compares him to Stewart, but J-Stew was 5-11, 230 when he stepped on to the turf at Autzen, a Herschel Walker-like fearsome amalgation of power and swiftness, a Mercedes Benz truck with a dragster engine. In physical power plant, Tyner is a closer comparison to Onterrio Smith, who played at 5-10, 214.  Tyner has the same explosiveness and quick-cutting ability, but he is blessed with a far more solid family structure and foundation in his life.

The challenge for Tyner to come in and be the feature back in his first season is imposing. His high school team featured him in a deep I formation with a fullback, the Warriors running primarily toss sweep and stretch plays that required him to pick a hole and go. Tyner doesn’t have much experience with the zone read mesh, which is the foundation play of Oregon’s offense. It will be a new skill for him, developing timing with his quarterback and learning to read the play. He does have a nice one-cut-and-go style; for a speed back he does very little juking and jittering, working his way upfield with extreme efficiency. He has excellent vision and balance.

 

A big adjustment for him is that at the Oregon high school level he typically was bigger, stronger and faster than nearly all of the players in the back seven on the defenses he faced. Yards will be harder, hits more fierce. His toughness will be tested, and that’s a challenge for a player who’s enjoyed the uninterrupted taste of stardom all through high school. He’ll get battered and bruised at the college level, and running backs coach Gary Campbell will be a vital asset, coaching him through that adjustment.

Tyner’s a competitor, though, the state record holder in the 100 meters, and his track experience of facing the best alone will steel him in the battle to be Oregon’s next great running back. He’s used to being under the gun. Jim Radcliffe will be another key part of his development, honing his already impressive strength and flexibility, working out the lingering issue with tight hamstrings that sprinters often face.

As his chief rival, Marshall has a tremendous pedigree. His brother Cameron is a star running back at Arizona State, his sister Dahylis is a sprinter and hurdler at Arizona. Both his parents are former college athletes, now coaches and trainers. Here is a profile DSH ran last February. Byron has competed at a high level from a very young age, starting with family races down the block in his neighborhood. He has a tremendous workout regimen and benched over 300 pounds as a high school senior, with a top squat lift of 510, utterly phenomenal for a 5-10, 201-lb. running back. He has a top 100 meter time of 10.67, slower than Tyner’s but very serviceable. He’s quick to the hole and tough-minded. Duck fans, and Tyner, would be foolish to underestimate him.

Machiavelli wouldn’t. He would know that the goal is to win games, and style points don’t matter. In fact, there aren’t any style points. Players like Johnny Manziel get a lot of ESPN highlight time running around, but getting in the end zone and winning are what matters.

The Ducks will attack in all phases, and the guy who wins the starting nod at tailback will be a vital part of that.

 

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