Although he's bigger at 6-1, 205, Sammy Watkins plays a role a lot like De'Anthony Thomas could be used for at Oregon if DAT decides to return for his senior year.
Watkins had 16 catches for 227 yards and 2 tds in Clemson's 40-35 victory over Ohio State last night. The Tigers feature him as a receiver, a return man, and running fly sweeps. They put him motion a lot and run misdirection and counters off the attention he commands from the defense.
Thomas is much smaller at 5-9, 170, but he's equally explosive, and has good hands catching the football. As a freshman he led the Ducks with 46 catches for 605 yards, and 9 tds. His productivity as a receiver has gone down every year, which is a shame, because slot receiver is his best position. Nimble, fast and hard to cover, he catches the ball well in traffic, and has a knack for the big play.
If he came back and focused on playing receiver, his future NFL position, DAT could give the Ducks a potent combination at wideout along with Bralon Addison. Addison can replace Josh Huff, and Thomas can replace Addison. Off the ball at slot, Thomas doesn't have to worry as much about getting off jams on the line, and the Ducks can use him in the motion and counter game, shovel passes, pitches, and quick screens.
With one man to beat in the open field, the Crenshaw product is one of the most dangerous players in the game. Having one clear role will make him more effective and improve his focus as a senior.
Dwayne Stanford and Chance Allen could play the big receiver role provided by Daryle Hawkins and Lavasier Tuinei before him. Keanon Lowe is one of the best blockers on the team, a senior next year.
The Ducks don't need The Black Momba in the running back rotation as much next season: incoming recruit Royce Freeman (6-0, 225) should provide an effective counterpunch to Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall, and Ayele Forde, Kani Benoit and Tony James ensure there is plenty of depth. Freeman had three touchdowns today in the Army All-America game, two of them tough inside runs in the red zone, breaking tackles, the third a 9-yard run to the pylon on the last play of the game as the West squad won 28-6.
The fly-sweep/speed reverse play that Oregon State has used so effectively becomes a great way to get Thomas the ball in open space where he is most dangerous. The Ducks can also motion him as a trailing back on a triple option, or flip him the ball on quick screens. He runs crossing routes very well, very difficult to keep up with in traffic. His small stature actually becomes an advantage as he works his way across the formation. Defenders lose track of him.
Thomas accelerates quickly after the catch. His most outstanding attributes are his speed, field vision and ability to cut at full speed. If he does return to play receiver, he has to work on his ball security and route discipline. Often fun-loving and childlike, he'd have to accept the challenge to take football more seriously, and be more aware of his leadership role and how off-hand remarks can affect the team and perceptions.
He is still the same electric player he was when he came to Oregon, with 45 career touchdowns. The Oregon coaches have to do a better job utilizing him if he returns, and he has to apply himself with the change in position. Receivers coach Matt Lubick has a tremendous track record developing players. Both Josh Huff and Addison made huge strides in their game this season under his direction. Nobody coaches details and technique with more meticulous attention. If Thomas wants to play, win and build a first-round resume, he'll have to pay attention.
If he left for the draft, he's likely to be a third-round pick, according to most estimates. If he comes back, returns two or three kicks for touchdowns and gets a thousand yards and 12 tds at receiver, he could earn back the first-round grade he had at the beginning of the year.
Thomas has offered a few hints that he could return to play next year. He's posted a photo on Twitter and Instagram of a cartoon likeness of him in an Oregon football uniform with the caption "One More Year."
Of course the photo could be a tease, or simply mean he has one more year to start in pro football. Thomas is playful and independent, and seems to love interacting with his Social Media audience.